Lola would have ran out of the kitchen if she could. If her head didn’t feel like it had been split in half and if she could see through her eyes.
But instead, she half-crouched, half-walked out of the kitchen. Ignoring her husband’s pleas to wait.
In the bedroom, she finally let go, chest and shoulders heaving until she started to fear for her baby.
Clutching a pillow, she wept some more. If she had not angered Kenny and her auntie, she would have parked some of her things in bags and gone to her auntie’s.
She couldn’t go to her parents’ house. They liked her husband. Her mother, especially. She was fond of calling him her favourite son. Thanking him for his patience with their daughter.
John was a sweet, kind man when he first approached her. He waited for a long while, when she was not sure. And when her father told them to wait some more and John said he understood, even her mother commented on her luck.
“Don’t come near me,” she jumped off the bed when she saw John at the door. Squeezing into the small corner between the bed and the wall.
“Please,” he didn’t look anything like the man that threw the coffee jar at her. “I don’t know what came over me. I just saw red. Please Osaivbie, you know I’m not a bad man.”
“Have you seen my face?” Lola pointed at her face. Although she had not seen it herself, the area around her right eyebrow felt tender and the facial muscles around it were tightening.
“I’m sorry. Please nau. I feel bad.” He gestured with palms outstretched in front of him. “You made me mad, Omolola. Haba, shey I be mumu that I think I’m perfect. I know I’m not. Abi, I don’t know you are too fine for me.”
“I never said that.”
He had claimed in the past that her fashionable dressing and beauty made her appear subtly arrogant. In addition to attracting men. Appearing available to these men.
“What about the way you made me feel in front of your people today? Disrespecting me in front of your sister of all people. And as usual I sat there like a mumu and took it.”
She opened her mouth to say something and decided not to. He could sway the most determined person his way. Steering them with mere words and making them abandon logical reasoning.
“I’m sorry,” he shuffled closer. “I know I did something really bad. Even though that thing hit you by accident o. I just wanted to throw something. Not at you. No. No way.”
She glared at him. “You lashed out.”
“You know you have been pushing me. Talking back. Keeping secrets.”
“Who is Jackie’s mother?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“You see,” he punched the air. Panting as if he was struggling to breathe.
“All I can tell you is, it isn’t me.”
“Are you sure? You had plenty of boyfriends before me.”
“Sorry I wasn’t as pure as sister Nneka, your holy ex.” She shot at him.
He had gone quiet and for a moment, she wondered, if it was sadness she saw in his eyes. If he was thinking of the perfect life Nneka would have given him. Their brilliant children. They would memorise Bible verses and quote with ease. Able to shout it out at their father on Sundays. Watched by their virtuous mother.
She thought of the boy Nneka had already brought to the world and almost laughed. The irony.
She was willing to forgive Omar when he strayed. She would have. And her father would have forgiven her for marrying the son of a polygamist. But then, Omar told her he was going to be a father and sunk her into this bleakness that stayed and refused to leave.
And she had known that day – not the following week when his father told him to marry the girl – that she would never come back to his house. She left his keys on the table. But afterwards, she would feel as if she left much more behind.
“I can’t tell you who Jackie’s parents are,” she walked over to the edge of the bed and sat down. He was looking out of the window. A finger tapped his head at intervals. “Only a few of us know.”
“Do you want me to tell you what the Bible says about secrets and the relationship between husbands and wives?” He raised his voice at the end of his question. Although it was the kind of tone he occasionally used in church to emphasise a point, it still made her shift towards the wall.
“John, please calm down. I’m carrying your child.”
“I’m calm, just tell.”
“Will it kill you if you don’t know? Even the man that should know, doesn’t know anything.”
“Really?” He grinned as he came closer, his eyes were firmly focused on her face. “The one that should know, does not know? So, that leaves only one man. I know you are not talking about Taye’s man because I hear she treats him like the only family she has. So, no secrets between them. Which leaves Tony.”
“I’m tired.” Lola took off her shoes and dumped them on the side.
“Kenny is Jackie’s mother?”
“Can you not drop this!”
“Kenny is not Jackie’s mother.” She took off her bauble necklace and fought the urge to hit him with it. “What I meant is, Tony deserves to know. He deserves to know that Jackie is the daughter of the man that attacked his fiancée.”
“Uncle Kola,” John whispered. “Na lie.”
“And her mother is Sister Yemi.”
“Your mother’s youngest sister? Enh? Uncle Kola did it to her as well?”
“When Kenny’s father was alive, he had a house in Lekki. Sister Yemi was leaving there with him.”
“Where were his wife and children?” Her husband asked in a non-questioning manner. His voice was gentle but his bearing wasn’t.
“They were here.” She heaved her legs up and folded her arms. “He was only in Nigeria for nine months because his wife and the twins started missing him. When it was time for him to come back here, his relatives insisted that he should put one of his male cousins at the house too. So, he put his cousin, Uncle Kola there …”
“Uncle Kola was Kenny’s father’s cousin?”
He clicked his fingers.
She wanted him to be quiet so she could tell the story and not have to tell it ever again.
She could still hear the sadness in her mother’s voice when she came home in Warri. The dramatic way she took off her gele and fell on their father. Crying and rambling in Yoruba as she always did whenever she was upset. Leaving her brother, James to translate to their father. And the almost comical moment when James interpreted what their mother kept repeating, that she met her sister’s belly, swollen as Sister Yemi ate too much. When their mother said aburo mi ti gbayan mi, James had gawked at their mother. “What do you mean Sister Yemi swallowed a cockroach?”
“Wait o, are you telling me Uncle Kola attacked your mother’s sister?” John had the type of puzzled expression he often greeted Gabby with in church. Gabby treasured her colourful designer clothes and accessories. Turning up to service with every colour represented on her like a combination of national flags.
“Sister Yemi did not accuse him of anything,” Lola said. “If I remember it right, they all blamed it on Sister Yemi. She was quite the party-goer back then. Campus was always fun because of Sister Yemi according to her friends. I remember my mum saying she should not have been dressing in skimpy outfits in front of a married man.” She paused as she took out the hair band holding her hair in a bun. Telling him all these was so he would leave her alone. She wanted to lie on the bed. Clutch a pillow and cry. “Jackie came to live with us. Uncle Kola’s wives were these two wild women that fought each other every day. Daddy said they might accidentally drop Jackie in a frying pan.”
She didn’t smile when John did.
“He could not put her down when she came to live with us. They gave her an English name like our brothers because Daddy and Mummy could not agree if to give her a Yoruba or Benin name. Sister Yemi did not want Jackie. Uncle Kola was not interested. Even when he came to London, he didn’t look at her once. It was me and the twins his big, creepy eyes used to follow about.”
“Did he try to touch you?” Her husband looked petrified.
“No,” she shook her head and stared at him. At his face and those piercing eyes. The eyes that sometimes made it seem as if he would do anything for her. “He was nice. We had no idea he was like that. Isn’t that what happens? You think you know people but you don’t. You trust them and they hurt you.”
“I need to sleep. I’m tired.”
She turned to the wall whilst he apologised, when she looked at him, he was kneeling in front of her. “What are you doing?”
“I’m not perfect. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Why will I try to hurt my own rib? Why, Lola? Don’t you know what you mean to me?”
He tried to pull her to him but she shook her head. His face was quivering like that of a spouse that had lost its partner. Yet, she couldn’t let him hold her.
The first time he held her was when Peter’s baby daughter nearly died at the hospital. She was yet to see him as someone she could marry then.
When he turned up at the hospital, her sister-in-law, Lilian had just cried in her arms. Lola needed someone that would listen to her. John did.
“Johnny, you scared me.”
“I know, I know, darling. Please give me a second chance. I will seek counsel with Daddy in church. I know I have anger problems.”
She nodded. “You need help.”
“Yes.” He placed his palms on his face and grunted. When he put his palms on hers, he had tears in his eyes. “There is something else. There is this burden I have been carrying for days. It is about Nneka.”
“I know. I know she had your child.”
She saw him gasp. Briefly it seemed as if he would pass out. Then like someone who had survived a problem he thought would defeat him, he exhaled. Then he placed his head on her lap and apologised all over again.
The cold breeze hit Kenny’s legs like the guilt she felt when Sister T messaged her not to come around anymore.
I’m fine babes. Missing sonny a bit. But I’m fine. I just wanna work on my thesis. We can catch up tomorrow evening.
When Sister T told her Tony was in Coventry with the couple that they lived with all those years ago, Kenny had been relieved. “They will help him get his head straight,” Sister T said. “They are like his grandparents. So, don’t worry. He will be home with us soon. Come round on Saturday like we planned. I’m not spending my birthday alone because he is off gallivanting.”
But when Sister T messaged today to tell her not to come, she had picked up the bottle of wine and rare tote bag she bought her and wrapped them up. The red velvet cake came in another plastic bag.
As she neared the house, having had to park at the bottom of the street because there were too many cars about, she noticed that Tony’s jeep was on the other side of the street. He had left it behind when he left. Parked carelessly close to a neighbour’s driveway like an abandoned car.
Telling herself that Dare had visited Tony’s mother and moved the car helped slacken the tightness around her chest. But when his mother came to the door and tried to take the presents at the door, Kenny knew she did not imagine the familiar aftershave scent.
It was Tony’s distinct one.
“Thank you so much dear,” Sister T spoke as if she was rushing to go out. “You shouldn’t have come though. I could have come to your house.”
“I was worried about you.” Kenny said. “Don’t worry, I won’t stop.” She saw the beer can on the table. “I see you are busy.”
“Yes. I’m busy my dear,” Sister T winked.
“Really? Prof is here?” Prof did not seem like the beer-drinking type. Not on the few occasions she had seen him.
“I will call you later, okay? Thanks for the presents and cake.”
“You’re welcome.” She pushed her hands underneath her faux fur cape. It wasn’t proving as insulating as she hoped. Her body felt the unfriendly weather as if she had been outside for days. The cape, a deep purplish red came via courier days before her birthday from Tony. With it, boxes of her favourite chocolates. Two pairs of black gloves and colourful, silk scarves because she never stopped complaining about the weather to him. “Shebi,” her mother had commented, “you say you don’t take presents from men ni. Abi this Anthony is special?”
That weekend after he asked her to marry him in a posh, Italian restaurant, her mother caused the Sunday service to last longer than it normally did. She spent one hour in front of the congregation singing and praising God. Every time someone asked what God had done, she would break into another song. Unleashing a voice that even her uncle wouldn’t call manageable. Sounding like the tone-deaf cat Taye described her as.
She thought of the sad songs that her mother sang at night these days and her legs would not take her back to her car.
“Are you okay babes?” Sister T asked.
“Tell your son I miss him.” She raised her voice as loud as she could. “Tell him I love him and avoiding me like this is childish. Tell him I wish he wouldn’t act like a coward.”
She heard the kitchen door squeak open. Tony appeared, stony-faced.
“Come in,” he barked. “Let’s get this over with. I will show you, I ain’t a coward.”
He went to the fridge after shouting that he had to get a drink.
“He still wants you,” his mother whispered as Kenny and her walked into the sitting room. “But he is very angry too.”
Kenny glanced at the empty cans on the side. At the stereo system playing hardcore rap songs and at the wedding magazine that had been tossed in the bin.
Sister T was gushing about her presents when he came in holding two beer bottles. One half empty, the other full.
“Sonny, look at all these.” Sister T took out the small purse inside the tote bag. “My girl knows how to spoil me. She did better than you.”
“Of course she did.”
“She is the best.”
“Are you going out? Go and see Prof or something.”
It was his mum he had addressed but his gaze was on Kenny. On her face for a while before travelling down to her skirt. The skirt he bought her that she complained was too short.
“I don’t have anywhere to go,” his mother answered.
“Go and see Prof.”
“Do I look like a stalker to you? I saw him yesterday and the day before. You want him to start getting cold feet, sonny? Don’t let his age fool you. Black men are randy for life. Forever catching cold feet.”
“Clap for yourself, mother. Great insight.” He placed the half-empty bottle on the table. “Come Kehinde. We can talk in my room.”
He glared at her when she hesitated.
“You can get going if you don’t wanna come up. We all know what you think of me.”
“I think you are a great guy.” She said quickly. “And yes, it’s fine. I will go anywhere with you.”
She followed him to his room and as she settled on the edge of his bed and he shut the door, she wondered what would become of her.
She knew what would come next. He would kiss her and want more. She would let him because letting him go would be difficult. And she would hold on to him until he would have to tell her that he couldn’t be with her anymore.
“Come and sit with me.” She uncrossed her legs and slid her shoes off.
“Why?” He had placed his drink on the table. His leather jacket, taken off and tossed on top of his small, travel bag.
“I need to talk… We need to talk.”
“I’m a jobless, pissed-off guy whose work mates thinks he takes advantage of young girls. Sure you wanna stay?”
“Uncle said he went to the school with Jackie. He said they apologised and said Lola got it wrong.”
“It is too late.” He kicked his travel back away from him. “Too late, Kenny.”
She thought he was going to kick it again. He didn’t. Coming to sit beside her. His shoulders drooped.
“Anthony, if I could take things back, you know I would.”
“I know. Babe, I know.” His hand moved close to hers on the bed. It hovered over hers and then dropped. “I could have stayed in my job and fought. I was just so done with that bigot. I will get another job. Even though, I know all the years I spent at that school are all gonna go to waste. I don’t see that man giving me a reference. I will sort something out.” He shook his head. “Our relationship is not that easy to sort. I have never been more conflicted in my life. I blame you more than I blame Jackie. She didn’t owe me anything. You on the other hand, you dealt me the kind of blow I pray you never experience.”
She couldn’t look at him. At his face or his eyes.
“I want to break your heart so badly,” he said. “Yet, I have never wanted anyone this much.”
When he kissed her, he didn’t take her lips in the gentle manner he usually did. He kissed her as if he wanted her to remember him. Nibbling her neck as he pushed on the bed, his hands burrowing under her skirt. When he paused, it wasn’t so he could look at her, it was so he could unzip his jeans.