Tony could tell from her voice. From the pauses and delayed replies. Her stubborn heart was wavering. “I didn’t kiss your cousin. Come over, babe. We can talk things through.”
“I can’t. You know I can’t, Anthony. I’m sorry.”
There it was, the sign he needed. She didn’t believe he was completely guilty. If she did, she wouldn’t be on the phone to him and she wouldn’t call him Anthony.
She had always insisted she didn’t like endearments but she liked to call him Anthony. Not Tony like others did. Just because she liked him more than everyone else did, she told him one day.
“If you are telling the truth …that Jack likes you, how come you didn’t tell me?”
“I didn’t wanna cause any problems between you two.”
“Or you wanted to eat your cake and have it.”
“I knew not giving myself to you was a big deal. I knew it. I shouldn’t have believed all the lies you told me.” Her voice waned and then continued with renewed harshness. “I’m going to bite Lola’s head off for what she did to you. She knows about Dr Fahad’s prejudiced behaviour, so she shouldn’t have gone to the school.”
“But I can’t get my head round what you did.”
“I didn’t kiss Jackie.” He felt like raising his voice. “Why won’t you believe me? Dare was there when she admitted it.”
“He called me.”
“Why would I believe someone like Dare who cheats on his girlfriend. Last time I checked, he had four women on the go.”
“He is trying to change.” He didn’t feel like telling her that Dare had only one other interest apart from Chinaza these days. That he was proud that his lifelong friend had whittled down his supplementary conquests from three to one. It still made him uncomfortable whenever he saw Chinaza. But he could reassure himself and say Dare was trying to change. “He is going to settle down soon.”
“It is Chinaza I pity.”
“I said he is trying.”
“None of my business.”
“You brought it up.”
“Can I go now? I’m busy.”
“We haven’t sorted anything out.” He sat up in bed, dislodging the pillow behind him. “I didn’t do it and this is the last time I’m going to say it. I’m tired of repeating myself. You either believe me or you don’t.” His mother was probably listening. She had rushed out of his bedroom prior to Kenny’s call, threatening to research employment law and sue Dr Fahad. Phone in one hand, the other hand holding her glasses.
Knowing his mother was listening wasn’t why his voice had started to rise. He felt like someone carrying a hefty load who had reached his destination then told he had walked in the opposite direction and he had miles to walk yet.
“Uncle Kola used to get so defensive. The way you are now.” Kenny said.
“You are comparing me to that man? Waoh. I’m so glad I didn’t tell you much about my father, you would have had plenty to say.”
“It usually starts with something so small.” She ignored his comment about his father. Her voice wasn’t louder. It had been infused with a dose or two of contempt. “Uncle Kola started by staring at me for too long. So, you can’t just say you only kissed Jackie. Every criminal starts small.”
“Fine, I’m a criminal.” The pillow behind him had started to irritate him. He pulled it out and threw it across the room. “Listen, I have my career to think of, I have to go. I will be here tomorrow afternoon until around six. We can talk then.” He clambered off the bed and pulled out a pair of trainers from his shoe rack. “If you are not here by six, I will take it, you are no longer interested in our relationship.”
He ended the call, slid the phone into his jeans’ pocket and smoothed down the creases of his jeans. He could hear his mother in the room. The urgency in her tone. Her fears.
“I thought you had decided not to go see that man. Please sonny, if you must go, let me come with you. Going to see that Fahad at this time of the night is a bad idea.”
He wished he had not told his mother what Dr Fahad said.
“Resign quietly and we won’t pass over what we know to the authorities.”
“Please sonny.” His mother followed him round the house as he went for his car keys and the letter he typed slowly not long ago. The printer had pushed the page out slowly. Stopping, then pushing. As if it knew he wasn’t sure about what he had written.
“This is madness, Tony. You can’t resign because that man asked you to. He can’t sack you. And he can’t report you to anybody too. There is no evidence anywhere. Jackie and her family won’t involve the police. And if they did, what will the police do? They will send them home. Please think carefully. Don’t let Kenny’s behaviour affect you.”
“I’m tired of that man breathing down my neck. He is never going to be happy having a Christian run a school for Muslim students.” He had decided not to tell his mother what happened to him at the supermarket. How one of his favourite students, Leila hurried out of the supermarket when she saw him.
Leila’s father and Dr Fahad worked in the same building. Ahmed said they were more like close friends.
Leila appeared petrified. He had to look behind him because he didn’t believe she was rushing away from him.
“You are giving up so easily,” his mother said. “This is not the Tony I know.”
“Maybe you don’t know me at all. Maybe I’m more like my father than we both thought.”
It was raining outside again. He didn’t run to his car, letting the cold rain fall on him. He felt calm for the first time in days. The roads were barely occupied, yet he drove like a man that didn’t have anywhere to go.
Giving up was not as exhausting as fighting. He did not feel like he was struggling to breathe anymore.
Kenny did not realise how much time had gone. She could hear her mother pottering about.
Her mother stopped at her door on her way to the bathroom. “Are you awake Kehinde? Please let us talk o. It is about Anthony. His mother called me.”
When her mother did not get a response, she walked away. Soon, she heard her in the bathroom.
Kenny read her mentor’s email again. She had read it several times during the night. She needed to read it again to swat the guilt that made her want to curl up. She had woken up wishing she could ring Tony. It wasn’t because her legs were cold underneath her duvet. It was because she wanted to hear his voice.
The email did not tell her what to do. Instead, it reminded her of what she knew.
Trust your instincts, Kenny. I have always trusted it myself. Time for you to rely on it. Don’t doubt yourself.
At work, she shredded her worries and shut the door on it. She succeeded until her last client came in.
Kiisa folded her arms when it was time for her to talk. When she started to talk, it was all about her father. Kiisa’s father bolted before she was born. Leaving the girl to blame everything that happened in her life, including her mother’s death and her brother abusing her on her lack of father figure.
As she talked about how much it affected her, Kenny fought to keep Tony out of her mind.
They were in his house and he had been slightly drowsy the last time they talked about his father. After taking two allergy tablets instead of one and apologising for his drowsiness. She remembered praising him about his polished manners and asking if he was like his father.
“My father?” Tony had shaken his head and pulled her closer. “My father is not a good man. I don’t wanna be anything like him, babe.”
Ahmed was waiting beside her car when she finished. He didn’t return her greeting. Face expressively stern. The extreme opposite of how his face was the day they were introduced. Tony and Ahmed had been on their way back to a restaurant. They had stopped at her workplace to see if she wanted anything.
“I’m here about Tony.” Ahmed stooped and inspected her as if he wanted to see why his boss couldn’t let go. Why she was better than other girls. “You need to go and see him before he makes any more mistakes. He has resigned as head of school.”
“Dr Fahad wants the job for his nephew. Can you not get your cousins sorted? Especially the one that came to the school to shoot her mouth off.”
Kenny started to walk towards the end of the car park. “It’s a family matter, Ahmed.”
“He has been wrongly accused. That girl was harassing him. Coming to the school in her tight dress, bringing him chocolates, ringing him. Why don’t you confront her!” He swore, turned and headed for his car. “I hope you come to your senses.”
She arrived at her uncle’s house to find them all there. Her mother, Jackie, Lola and their parents. John arrived after her. He did not kiss his wife on the cheek like he usually did. She wondered if he was as angry as her for what Lola did.
“I called this meeting so we can sort out recent issues.” Her uncle shifted to the edge of the settee. He turned to look at Jackie beside him and then continued his speech. “We are not vindictive. We can’t be. We are supposed to be righteous. And in our aim to be righteous, we must never judge. This is why I have told Lola to go back to that school. I will come with her. We will explain we were mistaken. We will then apologise to Tony and invite him back to church. Pastor John and I will pray with him…”
“What about what he did to Jackie. We can’t just ignore that.” Her auntie spoke up
“Jackie my darling daughter, do you want us to come with you to the police station? Do you want us to report him to the police?”
“No, Daddy.” Jackie replied. She appeared to be avoiding Kenny’s gaze. Looking at all the other faces in the room apart from hers.
“Dear, we can’t just let this man marry Kehinde like that.”
“Is Kehinde your daughter, sister mi?” Her mother gestured with her hands and lips. She did this whenever she was angry. “Why are we all getting involved?”
“We don’t want a repetition of what happened before, aburo. By the way, your daughter is more or less my daughter. I will ignore your rudeness. You are only lashing out like most mothers would.”
“What happened before will never happen again. Please, enough is enough. Lola face your own marriage. Let my daughter decide what she wants to do about her husband-to-be. She is not an imbecile.”
Kenny smiled. A friendly smile for her mother.
“It’s my business,” Lola stood up and went to squat beside her sister, her back to her husband. “We can’t let that man take advantage of my sweet sis.”
“Osa…” John’s face hardened in a way that Kenny had not seen before.
“I liked Tony too. But we can’t give him a free pass to my sister’s lips just because we like him.”
“Defender of lips,” her uncle adopted a tone that didn’t sound harsh to the ears. “I have questioned your sister. She wants us all to leave him alone. She said it was her fault. That she kept playing with him. You know how you girls are.” He grabbed Jackie’s hand closest to him and squeezed it. “Is that not so my darling daughter?”
Jackie nodded and beamed. Her face was as bright as her lipstick.
“Are you trying to blame her? Why do people always blame the woman?”
Lola’s stubbornness had started to annoy Kenny. She would have told her cousin to stop talking. One polite swear word. A raised voice. But she wanted to leave soon and go and see Tony. There had been something so finitely decisive with the manner he asked to see her yesterday.
“Why can’t anyone take my sister seriously?”
“Ivie, please.” John tapped the floor. A light tap that was barely audible. A result of expensive leather on rustic, wood tiles. Mild sounding. More akin to the self-soothing rocking children did. Kenny knew John was quite patient with his wife. Although, his insistence on driving his wife everywhere at first did worry her, she had let things be.
“It is shame that makes her want all this to stop.”
“Do you feel ashamed, cousin?” Kenny picked up her bag from beside the armchair as she spoke. “Do you feel embarrassed at all?”
Her cousin shook her head and glanced at the space between her feet.
“No, you don’t, do you? You are so fine, your facial expression and body language doesn’t even change when we mention his name.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Let me put it to you bluntly, none of the poor girls I counsel daily are the same. They all deal with their circumstances differently. There is no manual of what to expect but you woman… you are nothing but a dirty liar.” She had jumped out of her seat before proverbs started pouring out of her auntie’s mouth. They were in jumbled Yoruba. About the rottenness of children raised in the West. Lola was trying to speak too. Her mother yelled for her sister and niece to stay quiet and for the first time in years, she felt firmly supported by her mother.
“Your darling daughter was hounding Tony. That’s what his colleague told me today.” She addressed her uncle. There was no point directing her questions at her cousin. She had started to cry, trembling and muttering. “She even visited him at work with free chocolates she got from Neke. In a sexy dress! If you ask me, I’d say she wanted him for herself.”
“The blood of Jesus,” John shuddered.
“Is this true?” Her uncle barked. “Is it?”
“I needed someone to talk to, Daddy. I didn’t mean to get him in trouble.”
“What do you mean you needed someone to talk to. What happened to your mother? She is alive. Hale and healthy. Just because she might slap you if you go wrong does not mean you can’t talk to her.”
“She is not my mother.” Jackie shifted away from her father. “I know you are not my parents. Tony understood. That’s why I liked talking to him.”
“What nonsense are you talking about? Have we not treated you the same as your sister and brothers?”
Kenny’s auntie grabbed hold of her head. “What is she saying? Who are your parents then?”
“So where are my baby photos?” Jackie pointed at the collage of photos hung on the wall closest to the kitchen. They were of her mother with Lola and her brothers as newborns in separate images. “I have checked all the albums. There is nothing of me as a baby or toddler.”
Her mother tried to speak and failed. Kenny’s mother spoke for her as if they had decided on what to say. “This is your family, omo mi. No one could have given you anything more than your parents have.”
“I just want to know who my mother is.” She glanced at Lola then their father. Their quietness seemed to help her conclude. “It’s you, Lola. Innit? You are my mum.”
John stood up, glared at his wife like someone about to say something then simply walked out.
“Did they send you to me?” Lola yelled. “Are you trying to destroy my home? Do I look old enough to be your mother? Please, don’t try your nonsense with me.”
“I thought she was a sweet girl, cousin.” Kenny stood up, hugged her auntie whose tears had not stopped trickling, apologised to her uncle and slipped out.
She had to see Anthony.
At the traffic lights, she wondered if to ring him. She was minutes away, so she didn’t. She would wait. Her apology would be better received if he saw her face whilst tendering it.
His mother came to the door shortly after the doorbell chimed. The door opened slightly. Then wider. “What do you want?”
“Jack has admitted her lies. Please can I come in?”
“To see Anthony.”
“He is gone.” Sister T paused as if to allow for the impact of what she said. “Don’t ask me where. He didn’t tell me.”
“I don’t understand. I need to see him, please Sister T.”
She frowned. “Why are you acting like you care? Are you not the one that made him wonder if he was like his father? Do you understand what you did to him by believing your twisted cousin? Making him think he was like his father!”
“Is that where he is?” It hurt to speak or sound intelligible. But she knew she had to find him. He hadn’t told her much about his father so she didn’t know where he lived. “Has he gone to see his father?”
“Why would he go and see my Dad?”
“I meant his father,” Kenny corrected.
“One and the same, babes. My father is Tony’s dad.”
Kenny heard the bunch of keys in her hand clatter to the floor.
“You think your life is messed up, try being your brother’s mother.”