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Obinna did not let his back rest fully on the armchair. He sat almost on its edge, phone in hand. Going through his messages with a purposeful, occupied look on his face. She was busy buttering wholemeal toasts in the kitchen for him. Toasts, he didn’t really want. But it had been easier to say yes. She had seemed so uncomfortable. So he said yes to toasts and he had been glad he did. As much as he loved these moments with her, there were times where he felt suffocated by it all. The attention she gave him. Her beauty. Her politeness. They all seemed like gongs, brass and bells – parts working together in a grand clock. Strategies to make him fall for her.
It reminded him too much of Kelly. Although Kelly didn’t have the gentle manners of Isio, she wasn’t the Kelly she later turned out to be later on. She was determined, controlling yet caring. That determination came through in the early days when Kelly encouraged him to take on more contracts. He bought her presents to thank her. She gave up beer and her obsession with Luga, her first love.
“I love you, James,” she would say. “There is no man like you out there.”
She preferred his Christian name. She liked to be called Kelly and even her father endured her insolent tongue whenever he called her Chika. How could Obinna refuse her anything when she knew how to wield her hands on his body. She knew where to kiss him to make him cancel important meetings.
There wasn’t much of that before their traditional marriage. He had been convinced she wanted Luga. That if her father had not said no to her relationship with Luga and if Luga had not been imprisoned for fraud in Chicago, that she would not have agreed to consider him.
Then things changed when she came to visit him in Port Harcourt. Her driver’s malaria worsened and he had to be hospitalised. As Obinna had a business meeting in the morning, he told her he would drive her home in the morning. His tone was firm when he told her she would sleep in his spare room. She made his groin throb from the amounts of times he had to imagine her in his bed at night. Yet, he had been determined not to get too close to her. The way she fixed her gaze away from him as if she was imagining being with someone else was too significant to ignore.
That night in Port Harcourt, she came to him. Clad in a small, robe she told him how she didn’t think faultlessness existed in men. Her hands were on him and he let her run her fingers under the bedcover. The rest of that conversation would not come to him. But he remembered her hoarse moaning and how she called out James so many times and how she was too caring in the morning.
He wondered if his marriage would have survived if he had not told her to come off her contraceptive pills when Annabel was barely a year old. If it would have evolved into something unbreakable, stronger if their son did not die and Luga, the bastard, did not choose that time to come back home. For before all this, people that knew Kelly told him how she transformed into a different woman for him. How she was really trying. The way she continued to be despite her grief. He wished she told him she wore a smile over her sadness. That she was angry with him for not returning home on time when pain tore through her in the middle of the night and she had to cope with just Chibuzor there as doctors told her their son had died.
But in the days when he was too exhausted to be attentive, when he lost more money than he thought he had in a bad vineyard investment, he didn’t need a wife that was trying. What he needed was a wife that he didn’t need to be perfect with. A woman that didn’t mind listening to his boring conversations.
A friend. Like Sadiya, the woman that introduced him to hip-hop music and suya. He would have married her. Despite her father spitting in his face. She was Fulani. Of royal blood. She clung to him that night she came to see him before her wedding. Her henna-covered palm shielded her face after she said that would be their last night together. He would not have let her go if he knew she would be dead within a year. Killed by the man of pure blood her father forced her to marry. She was strangled. Her husband’s hands left prints that her sister said would always haunt her sleep. Her crime, dressing like a westernised woman. Sadiya’s husband was never jailed. He married a younger girl, a semi-literate six months later. Free to kill again.
Obinna saw him in Abuja once, shouting abuse at his driver because of traffic. Through a friend, he learnt it was Sadiya’s father that rubbed the palms of prosecutors and the police to save him from jail.
“Are you okay?” Isio placed a tray of food on the table and handed him a filled-to-the-brim cup of coffee. The tray had a plate of scrambled eggs, small, steamy sausages and thinly sliced, fried onions and tender tomatoes. A stack of brown toasts were on a smaller plate.
“When did you do all this?”
“When you were staring at the TV?” She took the red puff in the middle of the room, dragged it closer to him and sat on it. “Are you okay? You have gone quiet again.”
“Sorry.” He took the cup to his lips and studied her. His gaze fleeted to her eyes. They were wide. Curious and anxious at the same time. As he had guessed her gaze held his briefly before shifting downwards. He liked her shyness. The demureness that made him want to pull her to himself once. Strange, his younger self loved bold, outgoing women. Her scarf had moved down her hands so that the scars on her upper arms showed under the small sitting room’s bright lights.
“What happened to you?” He wanted to close his mouth around the words immediately.
She cowered when she saw that he was looking at her hand. “My aunty,” she wrapped the scarf round her upper arms, weaving the ends together on her chest.
“You don’t have to cover it up.”
“I ran out of the foundation I use on it over the weekend.”
“You don’t have to cover it up.”
“I wasn’t born like this. That woman…” Her eyes were watery. She stopped, tried to start and shook her head as if to say she couldn’t.
“I’m sorry,” he took one of her hands. He knew putting his hands around her would be appropriate. The void that swallowed his interest in women after Kelly would not let him. It held him down.
“It’s okay,” she shook her head. “I will see a plastic surgeon when I’m richer.”
“Issy, are you blind?” He placed the cup down and grabbed her other hand. “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. I swear.”
“You are just saying it.”
“It is the truth. And I know beautiful because I have seen beautiful. But what makes you stand out is your cleverness and your compassion. Please, don’t try to change anything about you. You are perfect.”
“Now, can I go and wash my hands. I’m so hungry and your food smells delicious.”
“Let me go and get changed.”
“You are joining me.”
“Jay, I’m not very hungry.”
“Small portion then. Or else, I will start to think you have put a love potion in my food.”
“But feel free to put love potion in my food, sha. I like good things. This man will fall for you after the first spoon.”
“Why didn’t you go to your mother? After your father died.” He asked her. They had eaten and he had finished his second cup of tea.
She had taken to the sofa, crossed her legs to make them appear longer and leaner.
“She varnished after she left Nigeria. She didn’t come back after Daddy died. I don’t think his family would have let us go.” It hurt too much to tell him their mother did not let leaving them cripple her. She fell in love with a Sudanese man with whom she had two daughters. Seeing them when she saw her mother for the first time in years, three years ago was like being caned on open wounds. She didn’t go back after that day. Work always got in the way. Someone had to provide for her sister.
“Even though they didn’t want you? I don’t get it.”
“My aunty was okay with Elohor. Even my grandma used to send her on errands. It was just me. No matter what I did, my aunty would go mad.”
“She whacked this bench on my head one day. I thought I was dead.”
“I think she was jealous of you. You are beautiful…”
“Jay, stop it.” She rolled her eyes. “You are always complimenting me.”
“Let me land.” He sat up. “You told me you look more mixed than your sister. Maybe you reminded her too much of your mother.”
She shrugged. “Let me stop boring you. Shall we watch a Nigerian film?”
“You can never bore me. I’m all yours, sweetie.”
She was disappointed when he received a call from a business associate around lunch time and he announced he had to go. She saw him to the car and the rest of her day off was wasted on doing nothing. Each time she logged on to her agency’s training website, she struggled to concentrate on the courses.
In the evening, she went to check the post box again. Obinna had told her earlier that Aspire’s HR department would write to her to inform her of her payment for the promotional work. She saw Kanyin talking to a familiar man by the lift.
“Hi,” Kanyin greeted. “I didn’t know you were in. This is Ekong. Austin sent him to check on me.”
Isio tried not to laugh. Kanyin had been with Austin for two days during the week. They talked on the phone for hours every evening.
“Hi Isio. Are you okay?” The familiar man asked with a cautious smile.
She recognised him when he smiled. He was the one that charged into the apartment with Austin the night of the party.
“My name is Ekong. We met weeks ago.”
“Yes,” she nodded. “Thank you for what you did that night.”
“You are welcome. Anytime.”
The man had thick, black hair and a cheerful face. He looked at her like Obinna sometimes did whenever there was no one around.
“Enh en, I’m still here,” Kanyin clicked her fingers. “I’m the one your friend asked you to come and protect o.”
He threw his head back and laughed. When he said goodnight, hers was a hearty one. They went upstairs to Kanyin’s afterwards. She was worried about Biba who had not responded to her text messages. They rang her phone with Kanyin’s cordless, landline phone, both trying not to tighten their faces in worry. And although, the phone rang and there was no response, Kanyin reassured her.
Obinna was not home the day of her next shift with his mother. She was surprised to find he had gone to Nigeria.
“Did he not tell you?” Annabel asked.
Isio shook her head and pretended not to notice the smile that lit up the girl’s face. The smile was still there as she showed her pictures of a stunning woman with a toned figure and flirty eyes leaning on Obinna.
“Mummy and Daddy look good together, don’t they? Mummy put this one on Instagram.”
Isio tried to get back to the food she was warming up for the girl’s grandmother but the one-sided conversation continued.
“That’s our house in Enugu. The house Daddy gave to my mum. He is there to look after her. My grandad is ill.”
When Mrs Okadigbo came into the kitchen she sent her granddaughter upstairs for her phone. Her voice was gentle as she addressed Isio.
“His trip home wasn’t planned. Please be patient with him, my daughter. And don’t let that girl discourage you.”
“Mummy, there is nothing going on.” She tried to continue.
“Biko, I’m not blind. Tell another lie.”
The day after he came back, he drove down to the hospital. She was queuing up for the bus at the bus shelter when she saw his jeep. She ignored the envious stares of the tired nurses at the bus shelter and squealed as she jumped in the car.
“This is a surprise. How did you find me?”
“I listen when you talk.” He looked ravishing in a black polo neck and tight fitting, white jeans.
“How did you find your way around the hospital? I thought you would be resting. Are you not tired?”
“First things first,” he grinned and stroked his chin. He had a stubble that suited him. “Don’t I get a welcome kiss?”
“You heard me, sweetie.” His eyes were like bright neon lamps as he moved his head closer and she planted a kiss on the side of his face. “Okay. I will manage that.”
The grin had not disappeared as he drove out of the hospital. She couldn’t take her eyes off him. He smelt divine. And it worried her that his mother would stop needing her and she would have no reason to be at the house anymore.
“Have you heard from Biba?” He asked after explaining why he had to go home.
“Not really,” she moaned. “She messaged me on Facebook last week saying she is at her aunt’s. That I should not call or come over. Honestly, I’m worried.” Although her friend did not like to reveal to people she had a son, Isio was too worried to care about this. “She hasn’t seen her son in weeks. Her ex has been ringing me.”
“She has a child? Does my brother know about this?”
“She disappeared because of your brother, Jay. I don’t think his feelings matter.”
“True. A child before marriage is not a big deal these days. I’m not judging.”
“Okay,” she twirled her jacket’s belt around a finger. “My point is, she is not hands on with her son. But she won’t leave peaches like that.”
“Abeg, which one is Peaches?”
“Her son.” She frowned when he laughed. “You are not taking me seriously.” Her face relaxed as he took one of her hands and squeezed it.
“Your girl is fine, Issy. She needs time to get over my big-headed brother. That’s all. Don’t worry. Okay?”
“Do I get a smile?” They were waiting at the traffic lights on the main road. Minutes from the apartments.
“After you were laughing at me.”
“Laughing at your friend and the man that chose to name a boy Peaches.”
“What’s wrong with peaches? His name is Pete. We call him Peaches.”
“Madam we-call-him-Peaches. Which one are you going to name your own child? Apple or Banana.” He turned the music up and his voice boomed above Flavour’s. He gestured and blew her a kiss and she noticed that he wanted to make her happy. She was amused but she let his voice serenade her. They were both smiling when he parked in front of her building. So she was surprised when he handed her two big carrier bags from the boot and said he had to go.
“Are you not coming up?”
“No, let me call it a night. The bags… the first one has two pairs of earrings, some bracelets and a handbag that I was assured is in vogue.”
“Who did you ask? Did you have a lot of women around you?” It was the best way to find out how much of his time was spent with Kelly.
“Nana, my housekeeper.” He tapped the heavier bag. “This bag just has snacks and things that Mum said I should bring over.”
“Really? I hope you bought me burger peanuts.”
“Thanks, you are too sweet.”
“You are too. Goodnight, sweetie.”
She stared at him long and hard, the way Kanyin told her to. Yet, he didn’t kiss her when he said goodnight again. She watched the car speed off. After dumping the bags in the apartment, she went over to Kanyin’s, announced her entry with a sigh.
“Please tell me you know what’s up between you two?” Kanyin was standing by the open window when she came in. “No goodnight kiss?”
“I’m sure you saw nothing happened from that window.” She shrugged as she walked over to her. “How is studies?”
“Study when I have this gbeborun window?” She giggled. “Well, tell him to hurry up. Ekong has asked me if you are single. He wants you like mad.”
Isio did not have time to respond as her phone shrilled. Annabel had changed the ring tone. She had willingly handed over her phone to her knowing there were no incriminating messages from her father on it –the reason she believed Annabel asked for her phone.
“I don’t recognise this number ringing me.” Isio said and tapped on the screen to answer the phone.
“Hello, is this Isio?” The throaty voice that came through on the phone’s loudspeaker was a polished voice, the owner’s Nigerian accent veiled. “This is Funmi Lawal. I’m calling you regarding my niece.”
“Oh, hello ma.” Isio greeted her quickly. “How are you ma? We have been wondering about Biba. We are really worried about her.”
“Habiba tried to kill herself last night.” The woman blurted out.
“She did what?” Isio was not sure what the woman said next as Kanyin screamed her own exclamation, what? Following it with another question.
“She is fine now. She didn’t actually do it. ” The woman’s voice was laced with impatience. She sounded angry too. Isio imagined her waving her hands about in anger.
“My daughter caught her before she took the pills.” She muttered an Arabic phrase under her breath and continued coldly.
“What I want to know is if you can help me trace this Chibuzor. The man that broke up with Habiba claiming they are relatives. This is what I found out from her today. This is why she has been crying every day. I hope this Chibuzor’s family are rich. My brother will sue them for their last kobo.”