Kenny watched as Sister T poured herself another glass of the dark-brown drink from the green bottle on the mantelpiece. She stared at her own drink. It was similar to the bitter tasting agbo her mother used to beg her and Taye to drink.
She couldn’t remember asking for a drink. She could barely remember coming into the house.
There were too many questions at the tip of her tongue. Every time she pushed one back, another one took its place. As a counsellor, she knew not to force people to share. She was supposed to let Sister T tell her how she came to have her father’s child. She was taught to listen. To probe cleverly. But this was different. It was Tony’s life. Her life.
“Drink up,” Sister T ordered.
Kenny’s hand trembled when she lifted her cup up. She guzzled a quarter of her drink when Sister T stared at her and warned her with anxious eyes that she would need the drink for her story.
Kenny picked up the drink. Sister T had never seemed anything but in control before.
The warming buzzing on Kenny’s tongue did not progress into that fiery burning. Her tongue was numb by the time she tried another sip.
“It is the usual story. Father abuses child from the age of eight.” Sister T’s voice fought to stay the same. Her eyes and face reflected she was struggling with this. Yet, she did not yield to the strain. “Her family is not one of those shielded families you hear of. Her father is a community man with people coming in to ask for help all the time.”
Hearing her speak of herself like she was speaking of someone else did not surprise Kenny. Survivors narrating their ordeal in the third person wasn’t uncommon. It suited some people. Some minds. A coping strategy. Especially in young girls that were trying to cocoon themselves from their realities.
“Her mother is dead. The few hangers on and domestic staff that know something weird is going on are too scared for their daily bread to say something. He tells her she means too much to him. That she is the reason why he won’t marry any of the girls that throw themselves at him. That it is part of a ritual he has to do with her. She gets wiser with the years and starts to realise how bad it is. Aged twelve, she says no. He punches are so hard a tooth gets embedded in her lip.”
“There was no one that could help you?” Kenny’s hands were holding her head up. She held it with the resolve of someone worried their neck wouldn’t be able to hold their neck up.
“My grandfather, Papa lived next to us. He was the only person that Father left me with. My grandmother was quite young and spirited. Just not interested in me. The housekeepers were not allowed to speak to me. The ones that tried, lost their jobs immediately. Akosua was the only one who knew the trick. My father and Papa were Guinness lovers. Akosua would sneak me to the veranda whenever they were drunk. She used to let me play with her son. It helped me pass my day after Father withdrew me from school.”
“Did you tell Akosua?”
“Yes, I did. I wanted her to come with me to tell my grandfather. I wanted to tell Papa about his despicable son. She said no.”
“Why? She was scared of your grandfather?”
“Turns out my grandfather was just as bad as Father. He started on Akosua when she was eleven. My grandmother knew about it. I guess she chose to stay with her rich, connected husband rather than shame him.”
Sister T poured herself another drink and gulped it down. She wasn’t crying. Her voice had started to show the strain of suppressed emotions. Alternating between dips and rises every few words.
“I put up with my father’s abuse a while longer. He even put me back in school and started to trust me. He started to trust me because I was playing the game. Playing the game whilst asking Akosua about poisons that can kill a grown man.” She shook her head. “When we came to London on holiday, I knew I wanted out. I was pregnant by then. My belly was flat but I knew it. And I was so mad. Strike that, I was raving mad. I wanted him dead.”
It was easy to see that girl. Pregnant and angry. Wanting an outlet for all that was stashed inside her. The possible outcome of this made Kenny reach for her drink again.
“One night, his friends came round and left early. The friend that owned the house where we were, went with them. I waited for Father to fall asleep with this sweet, university girl he was with, then I took his wallet and ran. I ran and ran like a madwoman. I ran like someone was trying to kill me. I ran because I thought I was having a girl. I ran because I didn’t want my daughter to go through the same thing in his hands. I ran and ran.”
She was struggling. Stuck on the word ran and even when Kenny stood up and went to her, she still repeated the word. Saying she ran and she was glad.
“I’m fine,” Sister T held Kenny’s hands and did not let her hug her.
Her lips trembled like Kenny’s usually did whenever she spoke about Uncle Kola. She used to leave the therapist’s office with heavier shoulders and a body riddled with cramps. Made worse by Taye’s hostility at home.
This woman was different. Stronger. She let her breath out slowly. In and out.
“You don’t have to talk about it.”
“I want to. You need to understand. He didn’t ruin my life. My life is not his to ruin. It is mine to live.”
“But what happened…”
“Doesn’t determine my existence.” She squeezed Kenny’s hands and smiled. “I was determined never to look back. You can’t let every wrong person that tries to wreck your life control the rest of it.”
“How are you so strong after what you went through?”
“Mine is a happy story.” She nodded quickly in response to something she saw on Kenny’s face. Something she herself was unaware of.
“I took a coach to Coventry that night. It was the only name on the departure board that sounded familiar and I wanted to get as far as possible. I was determined to be free of him.” She let go of Kenny’s hands and sighed. “It wasn’t easy at first. The place I found to stay at wasn’t as cheap as I thought. I told the manager I was eighteen and paid for a small room. I didn’t have much. I was cold all the time because I didn’t have money for a winter jacket. The first week, I ate just once a day. One weekend, I just kept drinking tap water to survive. Then there was this week that there was nothing at all. I thought I was going to die. And when the manager found me fours days later, I was too drowsy to understand what she was saying. I thought I had died and it was my mother trying to feed me the juice she was forcing down me.”
Kenny thought of Sister T going hungry in a strange country. She thought of the baby inside her struggling to survive and her tears came fast and freely.
“It wasn’t all bad.” Sister T wiped her tears, letting her palms linger briefly around her cheeks. “It wasn’t.”
Kenny wished Tony was there so she could hug him. More importantly, she wished her tears would stop for Sister T’s sake.
“The manager gave me a job, cleaning and making beds in the mornings. She couldn’t afford to pay me much. So, I was lucky when she introduced me to this Cameroonian pastor and his wife whose daughter had just gotten married. They let me move in with them.”
“They helped you?”
“Yes. They looked after Tony when I started school. He called them grandpa and grandma. I was determined never to tell him anything about where he came from so of course I let him believe they were my parents.”
“Did he ask about his father?”
She picked up her cup as if to pour herself another drink and then placed it back on the mantelpiece. “Of course he asked me. I just told him his father was a dangerous person. Then Christie, my friend came to visit us from Coventry after we had moved here. You know Christie and her big mouth.”
Kenny nodded and said yes. Not because she had met Christie but because Tony had spoken about Christie a few times. Describing her as cheerful and one of those that could talk all day and night.
“Christie was talking in her loud manner about how I should never let my son know about my incestuous father. We had just come back from shopping and we didn’t know Tony had come back early from school. My poor son was only fourteen years old. Yet, he was amazing when I explained. Until this whole Jackie experience made him doubt himself. Now he thinks he is like his father.”
Kenny imagined him finding out. Coping with emotions that came hand in hand with teenage years and marvelled at the man that bloomed from those dark years.
Sister T had gone to sit down. She didn’t look at Kenny when she came to sit beside her.
“I’m sorry for not believing him. I’m so sorry.”
“Do you know he has resigned from his job?”
“Ahmed told me.”
“He packed a bag. He has lost his job and you. I don’t think he will be coming back anytime soon.”
“We will find him. We will call Dare and all his friends.” She thought of the men in his football team he introduced her to. She thought of her dismissive behaviour back then and shuddered. They had just started dating. She had cared about him then but those men were always in shorts. Uncle Kola wore shorts indoors and she had disliked the sight of men in shorts since then. “Please,” she sniffed. “I love him. I really love do.”
“He made me fall for him. I didn’t even think it was possible for me to like a man.”
“I would have done the same,” Sister T said. “If I were in your shoes. I would have believed that evil child.”
Kenny didn’t know what to say to this.
“I was able to see through her lies because Tony is my son and I know him.” She stood up and clicked her fingers. “Let’s make coffee, I need to sober up. Then we can ring his friends. You will have to ring that Dare yourself, he doesn’t have my number and I hear he doesn’t pick up phone numbers he doesn’t recognise.”
“In case it’s a girl he dumped,” Kenny repeated what Tony told her.
“Don’t mind that one. We will track him down even if I have to pay his mother a visit on Saturday afternoon.”
“That’s when he goes home for his mother’s cooking,” Sister T creased her face in a smile that didn’t come on naturally. It seemed like it had been donned on to make Kenny feel at ease. “After the calls to make sure that boo of yours has not fallen asleep in a bar somewhere, we will talk about you.” She raised her hand in a gesture as if to tell her not to speak. “We will talk about your sex life. Or the lack of it.”
Lola was surprised to find her husband in the kitchen cooking pasta. Plates and cutleries were on their huge dining table – a present from her parents when they got married. The colander he was using to drain the pasta and the empty pot were presents too.
“You cooked? Thanks dear.” She wasn’t sure how to apologise for her behaviour. The words simply eluded her. She had called Kenny before she left her parents’ house to apologise. Dialling her number had led straight to her voicemail and she had been glad. For despite knowing she could have acted better, she didn’t really know why her anger raged uncontrollably. It had taken over her, overwhelming her every time she tried to shake it off.
“Go and sit down.” He said whilst concentrating on the pasta. “If you don’t want to eat, my son inside you needs to eat.”
“It could be a girl,” she saw his frown deepen as she chuckled. “I’m sorry, you know.”
He poured the pasta back in the pot and stood there like he was waiting for something. Jaw clenched. Standing with the upright posture of a soldier.
There was something in the oven. She could feel its heat. She was sure he was warm too as beads of sweat had gathered on his forehead.
“Is that what we are having with the pasta?” She pointed at the oven. Whatever it was had been covered with foil paper. The aroma was of poultry meat that had been roasted for a while with various spices. “What is it? Is it turkey or chicken? Did you cook it before coming to see Daddy?” She filled the silence with her questions.
“Are you Jackie’s mother?”
The question was uttered so calmly that for a moment she thought he had asked her something else.
He was still standing in the same position, his hands holding the pot. His breath came out in forceful spurts as if he had just finished running a marathon.
“How can I be Jackie’s mother?” She took a step back and abandoned the thought of defusing the situation with humour. Not looking like Jackie would not help her. “How old am I?”
“I don’t know.” John yelled. “You and your parents could have lied to me about your real age. Just to get you a good husband.”
“What? We lied to get someone like you? Someone as perfect as you?”
He caught the sarcasm. Picking up the pasta pot, he flung it across the room. She saw the coffee jar flying towards her before she realised he had thrown it too. It hit her head with such force she lost her balance.
She heard her father’s voice as she landed on the floor.
He was seeing her to the car when he held her hand and reminded her what they all promised never to tell anyone.
“Don’t tell your husband where Jackie came from. I know you are angry with her but knowing she is Kola’s daughter will not help her.”