*** *** ***
He found her in his bedroom, clutching the bedsheet she had taken off the bed. She was on the floor, face wet. Chest rising and falling like someone who had been running.
She didn’t look at him and he was glad. The glare of her eyes when Kelly finished talking could have easily struck him down. As if the shock of seeing Kelly in London was not enough.
“I came to change the sheets.” She dumped the bedsheets and held her hands in front of her. “Then I realised I can’t just walk past your wife and daughter in the kitchen to the washing machine …”
“She is not my wife.”
“No. She isn’t.” He felt like going back downstairs and ordering Kelly to leave. He would have, when she walked in, if his daughter had not looked at him with pleading eyes. He was struggling to control his anger. Annabel had lied to him, squealing, see you Monday, when they spoke yesterday evening. She did not tell him her mother was planning her trip. That she would be surprising him the morning after.
“I didn’t know she was coming, Issy.”
“How did she get her visa then? How? You told me her father asked if she could come! So, you must have helped her arrange it.”
“She doesn’t need a visa.”
“Oh, I forgot. She is an ajebutter.”
“She was born in Northampton.” He knelt before her and took her hands. He squeezed them and held her eyes. They were watering again. He hated seeing her like this. Her hair was still dishevelled from their night together. Black tear lines ran down her cheeks and he wanted to clean them with his hands and hold her. “I have never lied to you about anything, trust me. I have never tried to take advantage of you either. I can’t. I love you.”
“You made me think you were divorced.”
“I don’t think I ever said anything like that.”
“It was Mummy that said it.”
“You could have asked me, Issy.”
“None of it matters. None of it, Isio. I love you and that woman downstairs is no longer a part of my life.”
“Then show me.” She snatched one of her hands from him and wiped her face. “You made me so many promises last night.”
“I meant every word.”
“Go downstairs and tell her to leave. Tell her I’m with you and you don’t want her here. Throw her out, it’s your house.”
“And what do you think that will do to my daughter?” He had to raise his voice because she was shouting. “I can’t just throw her mother out like that.”
She tried to take her other hand from him but couldn’t. He held on to it. Talking to her did nothing to improve her state. He was partially relieved to hear Chibuzor’s voice at the door.
Chibuzor knocked and opened the door partly. “I just came back, Obinna. You see wetin dey for kitchen?”
“Five minutes bro,” Obinna barked.
“James, you need to act now, biko. Mummy is ready to come home. You know she can’t see Kelly downstairs.”
“Okay, five minutes.” He waited for his brother to shut the door before speaking. “One day I will marry you and prove no one else has got me.” He caressed her cheeks and chin with his hands and kissed her forehead. She didn’t respond. She moved when he rose and he realised that she would have pushed him away if she could have before now. “Please, wait here. I need to speak to Kelly. She needs to leave.”
“Because of Mummy?”
“Yes.” He squeezed her hands. “Then we can go to yours and talk.”
She nodded. A slow nod. Her eyes were reluctant, hands at her side.
“Yes. I will wait.”
He picked up the shorts and tee-shirt on the chair and rushed into the bathroom. The shower was the quickest he had ever hand. He didn’t wash his hair, wanting to leave her scent from last night on him.
She was gone when he came out of the bathroom. His disappointment crept to the fore as he joined his daughter and Kelly in the kitchen.
“Go to your room, Bell.”
“Daddy…” She was playing with her mother’s sun hat, poised on her seat. Face wearing the most confident look he had ever seen on his daughter.
Her mother was in front of one of the cupboards, holding its door open. She held on to it even after she saw him as if the cupboard, its content, its door all belonged to her.
“Get out Annabel.” He could feel the solidness of his aroused emotions. He glared at Kelly until she let go of the cupboard’s door.
This morning he had woken up feeling a calmness that now seemed so alien. Neither the tightness in his chest nor the intense emotions were present then. This was why he wanted his daughter out. He wanted to shout at her mother. To humiliate her the way, she humiliated him.
Kelly appeared to expect this. Taking their daughter’s seat after Annabel had jumped up and dashed out of the kitchen.
“James, we didn’t plan to disturb your little rendezvous with your girlfriend.” She raised one of her heavily jewelled hands. The nails of her hands were the same lilac of her smart fitting dress. She had taken off the white cashmere wrap around her when she came in, revealing a body that had not changed at all. She was as glamorous as she was all those years ago.
“What did you plan to achieve then?” He did not want to think of Luga, the bastard, she cheated with. It would only push him too far.
“I came to London for a break hubby…”
“And you had to do it this week? Bell was supposed to be on holiday. Why cut her holiday short! Why waste her ticket or shell out whatever amount you shelled out to move her flight date?”
Luga’s arrogant face proved as stubborn as its owner’s. It pushed itself in. Forced Obinna to relive that moment. His countenance was the same as he picked up his jeans from the floor. That same confident, lopsided grin. He had never been able to remember what Kelly said in between her piercing screams. But he would remember that grin for years later.
“It’s your birthday tomorrow, hubby. It’s supposed to be a nice surprise… having your daughter here on your birthday.”
“Stop calling me hubby. It isn’t as if I married you.”
“Waoh. You don’t know how much of a jerk that makes you sound like. All of a sudden, our traditional marriage means nothing to you. Suddenly you are proud of the fact that you didn’t take me to the registry or altar.”
He walked over to the kitchen door and shut it. She understood him. Even if his mouth refused to utter that apology, he hated that he didn’t marry her properly. It was something that he would never tell their child. Something that only a rare few knew about them.
She fell pregnant after their traditional marriage. “I don’t want to be a fat bride,” she had moaned. They decided to wait. The following months saw him travelling, leaving home when his wife had not seen him or welcomed him back from the day before. When she announced to him on the phone that they were to have another child, he was in Dar es Salaam. When Emeka called him saying Chibuzor and their mother had been trying to contact him months later, he had known without being told.
He was on his way to another airport. Head pounding, he had called Chibuzor’s phone several times. And because Emeka was the one with the temperament for delivering bad news, Obinna begged him to tell him.
Their son had died. Inhaled a lungful then faded away before he could be held by his father.
She stopped asking when she would get to wear a white dress afterwards. Going to bed early whenever he told her he would get home before dark. She would force a smile at times then he would see her push around the food on her plate. Her mother and aunt didn’t understand. And his mother, who understood grief even before she lost a son did not have a relationship with Kelly. The two disliked each other before their loss. Afterwards, they were like a warring couple.
“I know you hate me,” her bracelets, watch and bangles clashed on her hands as she held the sides of her face with her hands. “I did you wrong. Bringing Luga to the house.” She broke off and shut her eyes briefly. “I could have done things differently.”
“Letting me see you and him in my bed, yes woman, you could have done things differently.”
“Stop acting like you were innocent. You were never around.”
“I was trying to provide for us.” If he had anything in his hands, he would have thrown it. Not at her. He was angry with himself for trying to have a conversation with her. “You didn’t have to bring your ex in my bed. My bed Chika! Whilst our daughter was in the next room.”
“What about your own affair!”
“I never looked at anyone else.”
“I’m talking about Sadiya.” She shot off her seat. “The sweet, conservative Muslim girl you wanted me to be. The one you never stopped loving.”
He wished he had not binned his e-cig. He wanted to feel it between his lips. To be swept up in its haze.
He wanted it this much. But he had wanted Isio more when she suggested he quit them. Wanted her with a burning longing that kept him awake three nights ago. She was patient as she pleaded with him.
“You didn’t love me, James. You married me because your sweet Sadiya had died.”
“I didn’t love you?”
“No, you didn’t. You wanted someone like me. So, you can show your pals and family that you can tame a woman. You wanted to be closer to my father. Why else did you prefer working than spending time with me. This is why I took Luga back. And FYI, I’m glad I did.”
The words of his father when he heard about his relationship with Kelly came to him. Loud and striking as if it had been uttered minutes ago. “A woman that her father cannot control will never respect her husband, my son.” But how could he have listened to a man who thought women should make limited decisions in the house. About food and uniform. Not much else.
“I’m glad you took that bastard back,” he smirked. “I’m glad he sold your land from under you and dumped your arse.”
“You sound bitter,” she tittered. “Is this why you haven’t moved on?”
“I’m angry with you. What do you expect? You nearly destroyed my family. You were bringing that man to my house and bribing Chibuzor to stay quiet. I managed to convince him never to say anything to my folks about you. But what do you think it did to me and him.” When his driver told him about Kelly and her lover, he had asked his brother if there was anything worrying him. “No wahala to report,” his brother had replied.
“I’m sorry about that. I shouldn’t have involved your brother.”
“Is that all? You are sorry?”
“You are this livid? After all this years?” She shook her head and then raised her hands in mock gesture. “I’m sorry it happened.” She smacked her lips together. “It’s time to let it all go. For the sake of your young girlfriend. I’m sure you know what they say about feelings like ours. It’s like you still want me back.”
He pulled out the jewellery box in one of his pockets, flipped it open and showed her the diamond ring with several dazzling side stones. “I was going to cook her breakfast and ask her to marry me. You still think I haven’t moved on?”
She appeared to sway. The armour she protected herself with, lifting. She sat back on the chair, facing the door, her back to him. Shoulders slumped, tone noticeably less sharp. “I’m happy for you.”
“As long as you are sure she is not one of these poverty-stricken girls in London with no papers and no hope.”
“She is British-born just like you. Hardworking girl from a good home.”
Kelly nodded and mumbled something.
“She makes me happy.” He went to stand in front of her. “She was there for my mother and our daughter. I will fight anyone that stands in the way of her happiness. I know I was not the best husband…”
“You did your best. I messed up big time. I was not myself, Jamie.” She paused and gave him one of those smiles of hers. It revealed the sadness in her eyes. “I’m here to spend time with my daughter, that’s all. You could have stopped me from calling her and seeing her after what I did. You didn’t. I’m grateful for that.” She linked her hands. “You deserve to be happy. After what I put you through.”
“Okay. Thanks. Where are you going to stay?”
“I’m sure there are nice hotels around here.” She stood up. “Can I go and ask our baby what she wants to eat. I won’t be long. Give me an hour and I will leave.”
Chibuzor had gone to pick up their mother. He couldn’t leave Kelly in his house, so he stood in the garden and tapped the screen of his phone every time the phone rang off. Isio’s soothing voice did not come on to reassure him.
He had decided to drive down to West Ham to see her when Kelly came downstairs, holding a full plate of snacks.
“Can you go and see her? She is shivering and feeling sick.”
Annabel did not sit up in bed when she saw him. She stayed under the duvet as if she couldn’t be without it.
“If this is because I asked your mother to leave, then you are wasting your time.”
She stared at him for a while. “Issy is never going to be my mother. I already have a mum.”
“We are not having this discussion.”
“She is like ten years older than me, Dad. It makes it all wrong.”
“She is fourteen years older than you. Stop acting like a spoilt child.” He huffed and sat on the side of the bed when she said nothing. “Do you want me to die alone?”
“You will end up alone because she is not even into you. How can she be when you are too old! You are not even her type!”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“If only you know what I know.”
She buried her head under the duvet afterwards. He was too tired to continue the conversation with her and when her mother came up with a glass of Ribena, he left them. Withdrawing to his room to continue ringing Isio’s phone.
Biba’s eyes started to close after Damian’s car went past the big supermarket on Bulldoze Road. His slow driving suited her today.
She did once complain about his slow driving. Insisting on driving whenever they were together. He would give in to her despite his stubbornness. The stubbornness that pushed them together years ago at college.
“You are not like sister mi.” Her aunt often chirped. “My sister would never look twice at a man that’s not one of us.” Her aunt called Biba’s mother, sister mi. This was all she had left of her mother. The small details her aunt parted with in bits. They were close friends who shared uniforms and text books.
“The church service was good today,” Damian said as he turned the car around at the bottom of the road.
“Your father was electric,” she replied. The first time Damian’s parents asked her to come to church with them, she had nearly declined. They persisted, she relented.
“Are you tired, Pete?” Damian looked in the rear-view mirror.
Their son’s eyes were closing and opening. She hoped they would get to the restaurant before he stopped fighting to keep them open.
“Don’t sleep, Peaches. We are nearly at the restaurant.”
Pete yawned and mumbled something soothing sounding. She wasn’t sure if it was Xhosa or Afrikaans her son spoke. Damian explaining that he said he wouldn’t sleep did not help her feel less uncomfortable.
“You shouldn’t be teaching him a language I don’t understand.”
“I’m a proud man from Soweto. Our son needs to learn his native languages, Bibby. It isn’t my fault you won’t teach him your language.”
“I’m telling you what I want.”
He was smiling but his jawline had tightened how it did every time he had stopped listening to her.
“Please Damian. I don’t want my child learning languages I don’t understand.”
“Bibby! It isn’t just me. Church people. My parents.”
“Tell your parents to only speak English with him. I mean it, okay?”
“Tell them yourself.”
“I will.” She wondered if she was jealous that he had succeeded in teaching their son two languages when she had failed in this area. Not that she had ever succeeded in any area with Pete.
“This is why it won’t work.”
“What do you mean, Damian?”
“My father asked me when we would put our family back together this morning.” He didn’t glance at her as he spoke. “Now I see why it won’t work. We can’t even agree on the basics.”
“We did agree on the basics once.” She looked at his stoic face and after a while realised he had finished talking about their relationship.
Her father’s refusal to accept him was the reason they did not get married. His parents tried to intervene. Her aunt did too.
“Damian is a good man,” she had cried to her father on the phone. She should have said he spoke three African languages. That he ate chilli salsa and braai meat with his hands. That he loved going back to South Africa. That he would never forget where he came from.
The same could not be said of Ify. Her half-brother’s wife, Ify refused to attend her traditional marriage in Anambra. “I don’t like mixing with those people,” Ify had tutted.
Another brother married a girl with pale skin and red hair. Her father attended the wedding with his politician friends. Ecstatic, he claimed to be. Not because the bride was the daughter of an English shadow minister but because his son was strengthening ties between England and Nigeria.
Biba believed him. Until the day she told him about Damian, the son of a farmer turned pastor.
“You, Habibat.” Her father’s barks were louder than the rants he subjected them all to occasionally. This one scared her. She wept whilst he shouted.
“You want to bring me an oyinbo. Ko ni dafun e. May your children do the same to you. Useless girl.”
She would soon learn that when her father called her his favourite, he meant she was his favourite amongst his daughters. The albino brother received a car when his girlfriend birthed a child. A blessing, her father called it. Announcing her pregnancy, earned Biba abuse. Her monthly allowance stopped making an appearance. And its re-emergence coincided with when her aunt called her father to let him know the baby was a boy.
“Call him Feyikogbon,” her father ordered, pausing to shout at one of his many helpless employees. “Give the child to its father and go back to your life. You will find a Nigerian boy from a sound home that will pity you.”
Although Biba felt her phone vibrating in her jean’s pocket, she didn’t take it out and listen to her voicemail until Damian had parked the car in front of the restaurant. She recognised Obinna’s voice and winced half-way through listening to it.
“Are you okay?” Damian asked.
“Yes,” she answered whilst listening to the message again.
“He said his ex came back this morning. He has been to our place and Issy won’t let him in. He wants me to go home and check on her.” She glanced at Pete whose eyes were shut, head pushed forward.
“It’s okay,” Damian said.
“I don’t want to let him down again. I don’t want to let Issy down either. I have been such a bad friend lately.”
“You are not a nice person when you drink. People let you down and you punish the ones that love you. So what? Issy knows this. She is still your friend. Let me drive you back. You will make it up to me one day.”
“Make it up to you? Peaches is the one I’m worried about.”
“Who said anything about him. I’m thinking about me here.” He started the car engine and reversed back to join the cars queuing for the road.
“You are worried about your tummy?”
“Yes, my empty stomach. You will make it up to me for making me go hungry.”
He hugged her too tightly when he dropped her off. He kissed her on the cheek also. Her walk upstairs to the apartment was brisk. When she saw her friend in her room, curled up with her blankets and pillows, she hurried to her side.
She held her as she started to cry. She held her when she started to explain what happened.
“I don’t know how I can live without him.” Isio tried to pull away. “I can’t.” She panted as though she could not breathe, “I can’t.”
“You don’t have to. He left a message on my phone saying he loves you. He called me because he was worried about you. That’s love for me.”
“He is someone else’s husband. That woman is here for him and I’m not prepared to fight someone like her.”
“Okay. Let’s call him. He can come back and explain.” Biba rose, so as to get the phone from underneath the table where it was.
“Please don’t do that. That woman has already called me.”
“What? His ex called you.”
“Yes,” Isio wiped her face with the back of her hands. “She called me with Annabel’s phone.”
“That she is sorry for embarrassing me this morning. She wants us all to get on.”
“That’s fine then. You can kick her to the kerb when you and Jay get married.”
Isio jumped out of bed and yanked her bedtime top off. “Have you seen my body?”
She didn’t like to walk around the house without adequately covering herself. So, Biba had only seen her half-dressed a few times.
On those times, she had complimented her. For despite having a beautiful face, Isio also had the sort of body, Biba was sure, would keep Obinna unsettled from now on. It was perfectly formed. Wasted, as the owner did not appear to know this, constantly moaning about faint marks on her hand and thighs and the one on her stomach that was barely visible.
“You have a beautiful body, babes. Didn’t he tell you that last night?”
“A body scarred by my aunt because her husband fancied me.”
“You’ve lost me. Come on girl, let’s call this man.”
“My aunt tortured me, Habiba.” She didn’t put her top back on. She held it to her chest and closed her eyes briefly as if to stop the tears. “I don’t know how I can live without him. But I can’t go head to head with any woman. Kelly wants him back. Maybe she knows he feels something for her deep down… She loves him, Biba. I saw the way she kissed his cheek. This is why she sent that text. To please him.”
“I have promised myself I won’t let another woman scar me.”
“You can’t just give up. I know I didn’t like the big age gap before. Things are different now. The guy is loyal.”
Isio scuttled under her blankets and faced the wall. Her shoulders had stopped heaving. Biba watched her for a while. Eventually, she shrugged and sat on the bed beside her.
The reappearance of her tears coincided with the bang bang of the fireworks display down the road. Biba understood. Obinna and Isio were supposed to attend the display together.
She didn’t know what to say. So, she held her and said nothing.