Tony nearly dropped his coffee mug when the new school office assistant told him Jackie was at the school to see him.
He hurried to the main office, questions running through his head. He thought he didn’t have to worry about Sunday anymore. One hand in her hair, tears spouting from her eyes like rain, she begged him not to tell anyone about what she said. His mother arrived and he drove her home, the hug she asked for, completely forgotten.
Now she was in a tight-fitting dress. Hair straightened and down. Heels as high as tower blocks, holding a box of chocolates.
“What are you doing here? Is everything okay?”
“Morning Tony.” Jackie smiled.
“What are you doing here?”
There were a few sets of eyes on them. One belonging to Ahmed, his friend. The others were teachers that respected him. Yet, he knew better than to receive a female visitor there.
Daley Islamic High School, a secondary school for Muslim girls held both students and teachers to high moral standards. He had not expected to be made the head of school after the last head teacher retired. Having gotten his first teaching post at the school on a temporary contract. His interest in diversity encouraged him to apply for a permanent position. The promotions rolled in after that. He noticed as his colleagues’ respect for him turned to adoration.
Recently, due to the appointment of a strict, well connected man as the chair of the school governing body, he had begun to worry about his future at the school.
“I came to thank you,” Jackie smiled again and passed him the box of chocolates.
“I don’t eat chocolates.” He caught the start of a frown on her face and forced an apologetic grin. “Sorry, thank you. I have to leave for a meeting soon, that’s why I’m kinda preoccupied.”
“Oh. That’s fine. No need to apologise. I can come back.”
“No, that won’t be necessary. Thanks for the chocolates.”
“Yeah, I wanted to thank you for being there for me. You listened to me last night like nobody ever as. Thanks for everything. Thanks for the lift home.”
He started to walk her towards the front desk. “You are family.” He said as loud as he could. “I will see you soon, okay. Let me run off now for my meeting. The reception staff will show you where to sign out.”
He would have sprinted if Ahmed was not following him. They passed a group of girls in the hall and waited for the morning sirs before returning the students’ greetings. His friend stood in front of Tony’s big table when they got to his office.
Ahmed was of Lebanese origin. He smoked like he needed it to exist and before his arranged marriage had experimented with quite a few girls. On the surface, he was a newly married man who loved teaching.
His wife looked like a creature that didn’t belong to this world when Tony met her. Hazel eyes that fell to the floor. Smooth, fair skin that spoke off years indoors. Tony transformed into Dare, his mischievous friend that day. He had slapped Ahmed on the back when his wife left the room ready to gush.
“Don’t,” Ahmed had rolled his eyes. “I’m still practically a bachelor at night. Let’s just say it’s always a bad idea marrying a girl your mum likes.”
He was soon to learn Atiah, Ahmed’s wife had endured a traumatic circumcision as a child. “Give her loads of TLC,” he urged Ahmed. “Get to know her. Forget the romance. Be her friend. Control yourself and she will fall into your arms.” It surprised him how hard it was to follow those rules with Kenny. It had all sounded easy when he was telling his friend what to do.
“I’m waiting,” Ahmed grinned. Tony rolled his eyes. He returned to the application form he had been reading before. Going through each line as if he had not already decided to invite the applicant for an interview.
“How is the wife Hammer? How is our pregnancy progressing?”
“Hey you,” Ahmed pointed his index finger at him whilst tightening his face to stop him from beaming. “Just because you helped me make my baby…”
“You have to agree mate, I deserve to have that boy named after me. After all the late night chats. After all the… I can’t do this anymore whining I endured.”
“It isn’t my fault you like to help all your teachers. You are the boss so you already get paid for it anyway.” Leaning on the table, he tapped the table with his fingers. “Don’t try to distract me. We both know why I’m here.”
“Yes. You know I won’t give up so get talking.”
Tony glanced at the application form.
“That girl doesn’t look anything like your babe. So, why was she looking at you with loved up eyes?” He tapped on the box of chocolates. “And why did she bring you chocolates?”
“She is my babe’s cousin. The one that wants to volunteer here.”
“I know you are the boss around here but mate, please tell your babe no.”
“I can’t. Babe is the boss of me. She loves her cousin. Case closed.”
“Tell her the school board said we don’t need volunteers at the moment. Or tell her about the way her cousin is stalking you.”
“I know a girl with a crush when I see one. And that girl has already had your babies in her head. She is obsessed. Tell Kenny or put a stop to it now.”
Lola fluffed up the cushions again. She restrained herself from throwing them across the room. They were like bags filled with different solid materials against her back.
Wondering how her mother could have spent money on them, she abandoned them in a heap beside the settee. She covered herself with the blanket at her feet, placed her head on the settee’s edge and closed her eyes.
She could hear her father getting ready. The worry in his voice. Telling her he had a meeting at the church or he wouldn’t be going out in this rain.
She wanted him to go out and was happy when she arrived to find that her mother was at her shop; the African food and essentials shop she co-owned with Kenny’s mother.
This was why she came. To soak in the silence. The solitude.
Last night after forcing down some of the food and drink her husband served her to celebrate, she had pretended to be asleep. He was in an amorous mood, complimenting her every now and then. And imagining his body on top of hers had left her feeling queasy.
She had closed her eyes and burrowed under layers of beddings. Soon she heard him whispering on the phone.
“Don’t call me or message me ever again ” she heard her husband say. “How does one time, a single one time make a baby? Now you are trying to get my money. God punish you! Ashawo!”
She didn’t let him see her awake this morning. She left a note telling him where she was. Not because she wanted to but because she didn’t want him ringing her.
“Hiya misery guts.” Lola opened her eyes to her cousin’s concerned face. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Daddy was just about to leave.” Kenny sat at the edge of the settee. “He said you are hiding here.”
She studied her cousin carefully. Dressed in a knee length dress and with a face freshly made up, she wondered if she was on her way to Tony’s. Her father, she was sure, asked Kenny to come over.
“How are you? Is your boo waiting for you? You are all dressed up.”
“I’m here to see you.”
Lola narrowed her eyes. “I’m sure Anthony is expecting you at his.”
“He is fine. I have spoken to him several times today. He is still at the school, I’m sure. He is in a meeting with that horrible school governor that keeps giving my bloke a hard time.” She straightened her posture and painted her counsellor smile on her face. “So, talk to me. You have been avoiding my calls.”
Tony felt the spot where he had cut himself whilst shaving. He had thrown himself into getting ready for Kenny. Doctor Fahad’s visit to the school left him wanting to throw something.
Doctor Fahad had pawed over the lists of candidates for the interviews watching him with eyes full of bitterness. He had often wondered, at first, if Ahmed was right claiming Doctor Fahad didn’t like him because unlike the bulk of staff at the school, he wasn’t a Muslim.
After sharing Dhal and bread with teachers in the staff room and hearing the Pakistani, tennis coach refer to him as brother, he thought it didn’t matter. That he could practice his faith and do his job. Until Doctor Fahad took over as the chair of the school board. And he glared at him with eyes that told Tony he would have his job if he could. Giving him the kind of looks he and his mother received off neighbours when they were allocated a house in Hill End, an area with no black people. “Show them they are wrong about us,” his mother told him. “Excel at school and be the best you can be.”
He picked up his phone again and read what Kenny wrote.
Something came up with Lola. I hope you haven’t made any plans. Sorry x
He cleared his throat as he put the phone on the table. It felt like a flaky scalp and if he could reach inside, his hands would have pulled at his throat until it came apart. Sneezing didn’t help him either. His ears were two itchy, useless organs. He didn’t hear his phone ringing until he had finished eating his toast and drinking his honey-sweetened orange juice to calm his allergies.
“Are you angry?” Kenny’s voice was soft when he called her back.
“Why would I be angry?” He searched for something funny to say and found none. Remembering instead how she called him at lunch time. She was meeting her mentor for lunch and had decided to tell her about her childhood. When she called him, she had decided to go back to work and cancel the lunch. “You have to talk to someone,” Tony had reassured her. “If you think you can’t, still go for this lunch with her. See how it goes.” She sounded happier when she called later on. “I’m happy I spoke to Carly. I feel better already. Thanks handsome.” She ended with a promise to see him later. One caked with meaning.
“I know I promised to come over, Anthony.”
“Then Daddy called me and told me about Lola.”
He heard a door opening and closing, heels clacking then she continued. Lola needed her. More promises followed.
“It’s okay,” he covered his mouth and coughed to kill the sneeze he felt coming on. “Stay with your cousin, I understand.”
“You sound croaky. Allergies?”
“I don’t understand, cutie. I haven’t even heard a dog barking today so I don’t understand what’s going on. My eyes were burning at the school too.”
“You don’t have to come in contact with a pet. It’s probably pet hair. It could have been from anyone you saw today.”
He covered his mouth and nose with his left hand and sneezed. “Excuse me.”
“Why don’t you take one of your allergy tablets. I will pop in and see you when I’m done here.”
“Now that you know I will be heavily sedated by the time you get here, you want to come and see me.”
“See, I know you.”
She was chuckling, teasing him. But knowing about her past sometimes stifled their conversations. His part of it, anyway.
Not knowing what words could trigger the things she would rather forget, he sometimes hesitated, letting her lead him.
Whilst holding the phone to one ear, he popped two of his antihistamine, allergy tablets into his mouth. Kenny stayed on the phone and told him about her auntie asking if they could set a date for their wedding soon. She listed all the preparations her auntie said they should have carried out by now.
“You know it will be my auntie’s day. She has done a lot for me. My uncle too, he has been like my dad since my father passed. And I know Jackie wants to have a big role too.” She giggled when he yawned out loud. “That pill cannot be working already. Except you are already tired.”
“I’m done in, cutie. Exhausted. I will live the door unlocked for you, okay.” He unbuttoned his shirt and stretched out on the sofa. “I can’t wait to hold you in my arms.”
“To hold you and kiss you all over. To talk and have you listen. That’s all my beautiful woman. I will sway only as far as you want.”
“Okay then, I love you.”
“I love you even more.”
He woke up to a soothing voice. The voice was not Kenny’s and the scent that now invaded his nostrils and assaulted his senses was too harsh to be hers.
The two lightbulbs in the room had come on but they were dim and although the pinched blinds had been let down, he could see night had coloured the streets black.
Although he could see Jackie standing in front of the kitchen – her skin luridly dark against the gold dress she had on – he still sat up and looked again to make sure she was really there.
“You said I could come anytime. So I was at my friend’s and decided to come see you. About my career path. Daddy is on my case.”
“You let yourself in?”
“The door was open.” She giggled and grasped her hand with the other one. “Do you want me to make you something, you look beat. I was going to get myself a drink.”
He started to button up his shirt. Doing it quicker would have been his preferred option. His actions were slow. Too slow. His hands moved as if they were weighed down with rocks.
“Let me help you.” Jackie came over and quickly sat beside him.
He didn’t expect what she did next. And she was doing it, pressing her big lips on his before he realised. He grabbed the hand that had started to travel towards his centre. “If you don’t get your hands off me Jackie, I will pick you up and throw you out.”
She stared at him in horror. “I thought you liked me.”
“Are you mad? I’m with your cousin.” He jumped off the sofa and picked up his phone.
“What is wrong with me? There is nothing that she has that I don’t have. I know you feel sorry for her but it is different between me and you. I love you. I have always loved you. From that first day I saw you in church…”
“You need help.”
“She is too old for you. I’m young and unlike her, I care about you.”
Her crying did not stop him from opening the front door and going outside. He wanted to dial Kenny’s number. He wanted to push Jackie out of his house. But he knew he had to be careful, his fiancée loved Jackie like a sister.
She came out, holding her bag to her chest. “Please don’t tell my cousin. Don’t tell Daddy. I won’t do it again. Please.”
“Get going. Now.”
He waited for her car to turn at the end of the street before ringing Ahmed. Even though he could already hear his friend telling him to tell Kenny right away, he had already decided to be cautious. He would tell Kenny Jackie seemed to carry a touch for him, arranging his words to make it seem like it was nothing to worry about. A silly crush. He would call Dare next and Dare would understand his decision.
Kenny shifted on her side on Jackie’s bed. Lola had decided to come to the room to have a nap. She had followed her, hoping Lola would confide in her.
The bright pink scheme of the room felt too bright today. Jackie had enjoyed a good childhood and she didn’t understand why her cousin would not let go of her Peppa Pig blanket and the Barbie dolls on the wall shelves.
“Cousin,” Kenny began. “You know where I’m if you ever want to talk.”
“Yes.” Lola opened her eyes. “Please go and see that man of yours.”
“Whatever it is…even if it’s marriage stuff.”
Lola closed her eyes again.
Kenny rose and started to walk towards the door. She could hear her phone ringing. She opened the door and saw Jackie in the hallway, holding her bag.
“Sorry Jack. Whatever it is, it has to wait. My bloke is calling me. I need to get to my phone.”
She noticed that her cousin’s eyes were red and stopped. “What’s wrong baby? Have you been crying? Jack, what is it!”
“It wasn’t my fault. I just went to ask him for advice about my career.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“Tony,” she shrieked. “He tried to kiss me.”