It took a while to open the bottle of Supermalt she offered him. The bottle opener slipped out of her hand twice.
She did not smile when she caught him staring at her from where he was sat. It felt like he was next to her, his hands around her. It was hard to carry on as normal. His striking face, his dark-brown eyes, the baritone voice that sounded as if it came from a bigger man were all working against her.
The open plan kitchen suddenly did not appeal to her.
It had been the first thing that she liked when Biba brought her here. The open plan. Ease of access. The modern architectural design.
Biba was the one that rented the apartment as Isio could not come up with half the deposit on time. But her friend insisted on adding her name to the lease. Biba liked to be unexpectedly nice.
Stuck with Mama Frida. In Mama Frida’s four-bedroom house where each tenant paid five hundred pounds per month, Isio agreed to rent with Biba.
Mama Frida’s house was subsidised by housing benefits. Mama Frida herself paid six hundred pounds a month for the house, pocketing the surplus from her struggling tenants. Yet, they sometimes came back to the house to meet strangers on the lounge sofa. Young tourists Mama Friday charged twenty pounds to sleep on the sofa and floor.
Mama Frida did not like to waste what she called business opportunities. Books, magazines and DVD’s left around by the tenants ended on eBay. Clothing items were bagged up by Mama Frida and sold off at the fairly used shop. It was not uncommon too to find Mama Frida polishing off food left in the fridge by them. “I no wan waste am,” she would say.
“Do you need a hand in there?” Obinna asked.
“No,” Isio placed the drink, plated biscuits and a glass cup in a tray and took it over to him. She didn’t serve his drink, retreating to the armchair. The puff she liked to sit on was next to him.
“Thank you, Issy.”
She glanced at the black bag on the table. The one with her name on it. He saw this and continued pouring his drink. Seeming to enjoy making her wait.
“Sorry I didn’t come to work this morning.” She clasped her hands together on her thighs and focused on the TV screen. A documentary was airing on BEN TV. A boring documentary about politics. It didn’t hold her interest. She wished he would watch it. For a reason that wasn’t so clear to her, a strange shyness gripped her whenever he stared at her.
“Does that mean you are coming tomorrow?”
“What if I wait at the door and give you a lift to work tomorrow morning? Or you want me to beg. Is that it?”
She tried not smile. Her mind had set things in motion. The image of him on his knees.
“The things this country makes me do,” he grinned. “Here I’m begging you.”
“You don’t usually beg?”
“I hate begging.”
“So why are you begging me then?”
“Like you don’t know why.”
He looked away and concentrated on the TV. She didn’t like this about him. His ability to stir her up like she was something that stirred easily and leave her waiting.
“How is Annie?”
“Missing you.” He picked up the glass cup and drank from it. “My mother said your father is Nigerian. Where is your mother from?”
“Really? You don’t look half-Sudanese. You are quite fair.”
“My grandfather is from Cairo. He lived in Sudan most of his life.”
The last time she spoke to her grandfather, she had decided he had become more Sudanese than those born there. He spoke of how he loved the mountains and The White Nile as a boy. And fleeing during the war, mostly because of hunger and the frenzied civilians than the gun wielding rebels. Kind men will kill because of food,’ he said often.
“They all moved to London when my mother was ten. Daddy met my mother over here when he came to study. My grandfather is back in Sudan now. In Khatoum.” She didn’t mind talking about her grandfather. It was her mother she didn’t like talking about.
“You are still in touch with your grandfather then?”
“Yes. We talk more these days.”
She admired his perceptiveness. He seemed to be the type she loved spending time with. He wasn’t like Biba who would push for even the things she had sworn never to tell anyone. About her mother abandoning them. Walking away from her marriage and her children.
Her marriage started to unknot at its seam the day she arrived in Nigeria with a child that didn’t look Nigerian enough. Elohor was a baby when her mother left. Isio hated her mother for this. She pushed the hazy threads of memories out of her mind.
It wasn’t until she was old enough that one of her father’s cousins told her about how his family abused her. How Aunty Ejiro beat her with a belt when her father was out of the country. And how Isio’s grandmother, held her mother down.
“So, which one of your nationality do you like to be associated with?”
“I’m a correct Naija,” she said with perhaps too much enthusiasm that he laughed.
“Seriously, I don’t know anything else. I have never been to Sudan or Egypt. I speak Urhobo and Yoruba and I understand Pidgin.”
“Shame you don’t speak Igbo.” He sat back in his chair. “I’m a good teacher if you wanna learn.”
She searched for something to say, something flirty. She couldn’t think. Not with the way he way he was gazing at her.
“So, are you going to give me what you brought me?”
He picked up the bag and brought out the black box. Inside the black box was a small, white one.
“I was going to leave it in your post box downstairs. Just to make sure you can’t say no. Your phone got damaged because of me, so I think it’s my job to get you a new one.”
“It is so kind of you to get me a new phone.” She thought of how she had tried to save money at the beginning of the year to get herself a new phone. How she bought the phone then had to send it to Elohor who lost hers.
“I won’t be happy with you if you say no. You are not working for my mother anymore so no excuses.”
“Thank you. I won’t say no.” She took the phone and its box from him. It had been a while since she received a gift off anyone. “I don’t know why you are doing this?” It didn’t take long for her to be wary. Having sometimes received unwanted attention from men and even boys whilst at secondary school, these type of gestures made her suspicious.
“You are a beautiful girl, Issy.”
His voice, deep and sensual pummelled her. Whilst his eyes fell to her exposed legs. She had on denim pinafore dress with no tee-shirt underneath. She wasn’t expecting visitors when she dressed this morning.
The straps of her lacy, pink bra were not covered by the pinafore’s slip. The pinafore was mid-length, revealing her long, lean legs. If her legs didn’t wobble so much when she was in the kitchen and he wasn’t staring, she would have gone to get changed. She preferred to have the scars on her hands covered. Her legs, adequately, covered too.
“You truly are beautiful. But you have been nothing but kind to my family, so I don’t intend to take advantage of you. And I like the thing you have going on with my daughter. If we get too close, it will ruin your relationship. Let’s just say she gets very jealous where Daddy’s friends are concerned. We don’t want her to get her claws out.”
“I don’t want that.”
“So we can be friends? Really good friends?”
“Okay,” she nodded. “Talking of which, I have something to ask you. Since we are friends…” Picturing Biba, cross legged asking her son’s father for money helped compose her. If Biba could get money for the boy that didn’t live with her, she decided she could try asking for help without losing her voice. “This flat is a bit expensive. I’m wondering if you have somewhere cheaper. I have family commitments back home.”
“The pent floor of this building is actually empty at the moment. Do you wanna come take a look?”
Although, he told her she was alright as she was, Isio went into her bedroom and swapped her indoor slippers for strappy sandals. Her toe nails were a shiny red. She opted for coloured balm on her lips. A slight spray of her perfume. She wanted to undo the top button of her pinafore dress but was glad she didn’t when he stood so closely to her in the lift.
The pent floor had oversized windows, a luxury kitchen, fitted fireplace and a big Jacuzzi. The skyline view captivated her. Tall buildings she hadn’t seen at that level. Rows of new houses. New houses that looked beautiful under the street’s lights.
Although it was not enough to distract her from his closeness when they went to the terrace. The cool air hit her without warning. She shivered and he took off his jacket and draped it around her.
“Do you like it?” His voice came from behind her.
“It’s lovely. Too lovely. I could never afford it.”
“You can have the flat.”
“You don’t have to pay anything for it. You have been more than generous to my girls.”
She walked back inside feeling an unusual kind of excitement. One that tipped between extremes. He followed her inside. Stayed quiet for a while before he started explaining.
“So, I’m trying to bribe you.”
“You want me to be Mummy’s nurse again? Obinna … you don’t have to bribe me with a whole flat.”
“I need to take some promotional pictures for work. A family one. As you probably know the Aspire company is family oriented. The guys are doing it too with their families. Idriss with his wife and half a dozen kids.” His face and expressions showed just how happy and comfortable he felt to be in her presence.
She wondered if this was due to him being this kind of man. Friendly. Fearless. Undaunted by anything or anyone.
“Austin who is the London manager with his wife. Miles with his fiancée.” He pocketed his hands. “I’m old fashioned. I don’t want to take the photos with just Annabel.”
She let herself inhale. “You want me to take the pictures with you?”
“Yes. You will be compensated. Heavily. I can have our HR manager call you to tell you how much it will be. The photographer can tell you more about his plans too. All I know is the photos will be family friendly. They will be on our websites, calendars, our newsletter and displayed in our estate agencies.”
“Annie will be there too.”
He grinned and nodded. Leaning on the wall behind him and watching her with eyes that sparkled with amusement. “Bell will be there. I tend to behave myself when she is there. In case you don’t trust me.”
“I will do it.”
“Don’t look surprised. This girl likes money.”
“That’s good. You’ve made me a happy man. So, when will you move up here?”
“I can’t. Sorry. I don’t want to start feeling like a sugar baby.”
He laughed and asked if he looked old enough to be a sugar daddy. She didn’t have to apologise. He stayed with her a while, ignoring his phone’s ringtone. It was midnight dark by the time she saw him to the back of the building where his car was.
He took out his wallet when she returned his jacket to him, took a few fifty pound notes out and pushed the notes into the front pocket of her pinafore dress.
“I don’t want charity,” she protested.
“Good. I don’t do charity either. It’s the money for your taxi to the house tomorrow morning.”
“I didn’t say I was coming back.”
“You didn’t say you weren’t coming back either”
“Jay, this is too much.” Her head calculated how many nairas the money in her pocket could be converted to. How happy her sister would be.
It didn’t feel right. Yet, her hand would not reach into her pocket to take the notes out.
“So, see you tomorrow …” He stopped mid-sentence.
“Is everything okay?”
He was looking down the road at a familiar SUV. “My brother is here. That’s one of my cars down the road.”
He turned back to her. “He is not here to see you is he? I mean, there is nothing going on between you two, is there?”
“No. Nothing.” Her voice rose like someone with something serious to hide. She wasn’t lying. If only her voice would not falter. He moved closer to her and touched her hand. His hand lingered on hers, caressing her skin softly. “Sorry, it’s none of my business. I shouldn’t be questioning you.”
“Good. Thanks for tonight. See you in the morning.”
“Thanks, Jay.” And because she had seen Biba do these with men she liked, she touched her hair and twirled a strand around her fingers.
His gaze became even more intense. For a moment, she thought he would come nearer. “I really need to go,” he said.
“You should.” After two rounds of goodbyes, he got in his car. Isio waited for it to disappear down the road before moving. In the lift, she radiated happiness that reflected in the lift’s mirror. She ran her fingers over the spot where his hand touched hers.
Cautious after seeing Chib’s car, she slotted in her key in the keyhole quietly. She didn’t expect to see him. She hadn’t expected to see his car either.
Chib was in the kitchen with Biba. They were kissing, her hand freeing him of his top, his hands kneading her thighs.