he smelt his aftershave before she had opened her eyes. It was intoxicating and yet calming. Vaguely familiar.
“Have you got something to share, sweetheart?”
His eyes were gleamy bright. Joy had settled in them, around his eyes, forehead and chin. “Are you pregnant?”
“No, I’m not.” She was thinking that the morning he proposed would not matter that much. It was just that morning.
“Mum said you came to look after her. Here you are sprawled on my settee like you’re the patient.” He was grinning, “Mum is currently making you catfish stew in the kitchen.”
She could smell the tempting, peppery aroma from the kitchen. But what she wanted to ask him was how he got back so quickly from his board meeting.
“I thought you were at work?” His tie was a blue patterned one. Paired with his grey suit, one of his favourites, she guessed his meeting had been important.
“Mama called and said you aren’t feeling so good.” He felt the top of her head and grimaced. “I didn’t know hot temperature was a sign of pregnancy.”
“I’m not pregnant.”
He was laughing softly as he kissed different corners of her face. She would have laughed too if she wasn’t worried about her throat. It hurt like there was a stone lodged in there whenever she strained it. And she liked that he was laughing and not asking her why she had avoided coming to see him.
It had been easier to avoid coming to the house. To avoid seeing his mother. How could she have wanted to see her, when she had yelled that she should have stayed away from Chibuzor.
“I thought you were serious about his brother. Why did you let that fool’s smelly mouth near yours?”
Even when Chibuzor came back and cowered as his mother slapped him, surprising her by blaming himself and apologising, she could still not shake the cloud of dread. It hung over her with such stubborn determination.
Mrs Okadigbo had called Annabel back into the room and warned them all with the firmest voice she had ever heard her use, her hands at her side. “If I hear any of you repeat what was discussed this afternoon, you might as well go and dig your own grave. Do you understand?” With that, she had gone to the fridge, picked up the pot of leftover yam pottage, set it on the hob and asked them to wash their hands and set the table.
Obinna stroked her face. “What’s wrong, Isio? Is this why you slept all evening when I came round on Friday?”
“I’m not sure.” Yesterday evening, when her throat started to hurt, and her yawns were repeated frequently, she had thought worrying about seeing Mrs Okadigbo was responsible.
“Obi m, how is she?” Mrs Okadigbo’s voice came from behind them. “Does she need to see the doctor? Or should I go and bring the medicine box?”
“I will look after her,” Obinna pushed his hands underneath her and picked her up. “I will play doctor.”
“Odi mma,” his mother said. “I will cook some rice. I don’t think she will want poundo yam with the stew.”
When they reached his room, Obinna settled her on the bed and helped her change into one of his roomy tee-shirts. He ignored her protests that she was supposed to be working.
“Your shift has finished.”
“I shouldn’t be taking a nap in a patient’s house.”
“It’s my house and you are my wife-to be,” he yanked his tie off. “Besides, Mama is so well these days, she doesn’t need nursing.”
“She is fine.” She agreed and scooped her feet up, so he could cover her with the bedcovers.
She would have said that the agency was still sending nurses because he insisted. Because unlike most sons and daughters who would demand the best services for their parents and stand back hoping their instructions were adhered to, he had never been the standing back type. Not when it came to his mother. Or his daughter.
When he came back into the room sometime later with a tray of food and an unshifting stubborn grin, she realised she had let sleep snatch some of her day again leaving her with a fuzzy head and warmer body.
“Wakey, wakey sleeping beauty. You need to eat at least half of this.” He was now wearing a red bathrobe with black stripes, the bottom halves opened as he set himself and the tray on the bed.
“I’m not sure I want fish,” she scrunched up her face.
“Just eat some of the rice and veg.”
“You are so stubborn.”
“Who do you think helped Mama raise those naughty brothers and sister of mine.” He picked up the spoon in the yoghurt tub on the tray and stirred it as if it was the glass of martini she had seen him stir with fluid movements.
She chewed a few spoons of rice languidly after the yoghurt. Obinna was careful to avoid the fish, pushing it out of the way with the spoon.
“No more,” she insisted after he passed her a large, oval cup of milky chocolate drink.
“I made you that. Drink up, sexy.”
“I’m not sexy, I’m sick.”
“You are so sexy, it’s unreal.” He winked as he picked up the tray. “I swear, you need glasses or a new mirror.”
He stripped out of his bath robe and climbed in bed with her when he came back. It felt warm under the bedcovers. Comfortably warm. She let him pull her to him and kissed his bare chest but pushed his hand away when it lingered on her thighs.
“I’m not that selfish,” the hand moved to her hip and it started to knead the area. “I’m only trying to help you feel better. I don’t want to leave you in this state tomorrow.”
“I don’t want Mummy thinking I’m in your bed.”
“She knows you are in my bed.”
“You know what I mean.”
She tried to find the words to explain she did not want to disrespect his mother. She did not want the older woman thinking ill of her. To think of her the way, she was sure, Sister Amaka now thought of Biba.
Sister Amaka, who prayed after every sentence and invited them to her church at the busy, Stratford bus stop. They would learn later, much later, that Sister Amaka had been due for a leadership promotion. That she did not worry about ferrying Biba in her short skirts to church because she wanted to be a pastor in less than five years.
As Sister Amaka’s church served food after service and she drove them home because she lived in the building behind theirs, it had been a mutually beneficial relationship. Until, the day she found Biba and her son undressing each other in the church’s kitchen.
“You don’t want Mum thinking I have taken your virginity. Is that it?” he laughed softly. “If she had her way, I would have gotten there on the first day I saw you.”
“You are a dog,” she pressed her middle finger into his chest. “You should be called a dirty dog, not the chief that some of your friends call you.”
“I’m a good man. Those people wanted me as chief because I’m good.”
She did not wait for him to retell the story of how they wanted him. How his father had been approached instead because Obinna did politely say no.
“This dirty dog hopes you are pregnant.” He kissed the top of her head before lowering his mouth to her lips and neck. “I wish you would want it as much I do.”
“I want to.”
“It’s okay, I get it. You are not ready to let go yet. It’s the age factor,” he sighed. “We are at completely different stages in our lives.”
“I’m with you.” How could she say no to him?
“It’s whatever you want, my beautiful bride-to-be. I’m not going to rush you anymore. Put your head back on my chest, let me hold you.”
“I can’t believe you are leaving for Nigeria in a few hours. I will miss you.”
“Me too, my love.”
Placing her head on his chest again, she let him hold her. She would not let Biba’s voice in her head.
Obinna trudged towards the door, lifting the suitcase instead of dragging it so he would not wake Isio. Her limbs had floundered about in bed for most of the night so that when she bolted upright, he thought she had given up.
“I need to wee,” she murmured when he asked if she wanted something.
He had fetched her a paracetamol tablet, a glass of water and watched her flop back in bed afterwards. He stayed beside her, quietly, as day started to break through the hard, cloudy sky.
Now as he greeted the driver taking him to the airport, he heard the weariness in his voice.
“Morning sir,” the driver sounded too cheerful.
“I will be back in a moment,” he gave the suited man the suitcase and climbed the stairs quietly. His mother was in bed, reading from a church magazine. “Mama,” he greeted.
“Is it that time already?” She placed the magazine beside her. “Let me come and make you something to eat or has Isio done it?”
“No, I’m fine.” He passed her the envelope from his trousers’ pocket. Her comment reminded her of what she said to Angel about waking up early to make his breakfast. It had surprised him then because she often told his sister not to be any man’s door mat. Although, despite being a university professor, much of her time had been devoted to caring for their father. When he came home late, when he disappeared all weekend.
“Obi m, daalu.”
“If it’s not enough, just ask Issy to open the safe and get you another grand. I changed the combination because your greedy son found out the last one.”
“So, Issy knows the new combination?” She scratched her chin lightly, the way she tended to do when about to say something uncomfortable.
He raised his hand as if he could stop her by doing just that and shook his head. “Don’t start. Or I will remind you Issy was your choice.”
“I’m just worried, my dear.” She spoke firmly now. “You clearly love her. So, why are you rushing everything like say it’s a race?”
“I have to go.”
She climbed out of bed, came towards him and smiled reassuringly. “You can’t run a relationship that would lead to marriage like every other relationship. You need to know each other so that nothing can pull you apart. Issy, is a trusting girl.” She scoffed, “you, on the other hand, you have seen life.”
He kissed her forehead and mumbled he had to go. Not because he had to. Ekong had booked the chauffeured car for two hours earlier than required. Knowing he disliked arriving late anywhere.
“You stayed away from women for years. You said you would never trust or love another woman.” She took one of his hands in hers. “What your wife did to you nearly killed you. I saw you act like you were fine but a good mum knows her own child.”
“And now I’m healed.” He kissed her forehead again, touching her head. Her short growth. The one that replaced the long, healthy hair she once had.
He had always believed no one saw how he tried not to shout at Annabel whenever she asked for her mother. How he swapped his busy routine for a busier one because he did not want to think of his wife.
“Make sure my fiancée doesn’t lift a finger, she needs to rest. See you soon, Mum.”
“Goodbye my son.”
Biba savoured the site before her in the kitchen. The tray of dainty, golden coloured, fried plaintain, the pot of choppy-blended, meaty stew and rice cooked with unused beans.
She had never liked cooking. Preferring Isio or a nameless person from a take-away place. But Isio had looked more like a patient on a sickbay ward today. Not someone that could be trusted with food.
She glared at her as she plodded towards the sofa, slouching as though she had suddenly developed backache. “You should have used your brain when your Jay was saying let’s make a baby. Not smile and open wide.”
“Why are you so mean?”
Kanyin was standing in front of the bathroom door. Biba had not heard her come out of the bathroom.
“She keeps saying I should have waited until we were married,” Isio said. “Please tell her, I’m not pregnant. I’m just ill.”
“But you are pregnant. You are a nurse. Quit the teenager act.”
“Leave her alone, Bibs.” Kanyin joined their friend on the sofa with the speed of a lioness trying to protect its curb. “At least she has a man that loves her. It is up to her how she decides to live her life.”
“Up to Jay you mean?”
“If your insides are too sour to say something nice, how about don’t say anything.”
“You wanna repeat that?”
“You heard me, Habiba.”
She eyed the glass cup on the tray, the one she had filled to the brim with the cheap tasting juice for Kanyin and walked past it. She would not be serving her. Either of them. She took the armchair close to the TV and concentrated on its screen. Watching a celebrity whose name she could never remember dance woefully on a dance show.
Isio had started to talk about Obinna again. He had not called since yesterday. “I hope Daddy did not give him a hard time. He can be so judgemental when it comes to rich people. Like he is jealous or something.”
Biba wanted to remind her that Bolaji’s father cared for her and her sister as though they were his own children. She wanted to tell her not to speak about him like that because of a man that would probably let her down but she merely shook her head.
“Or maybe it is that talkative sister of mine,” Isio fumed.
“Why is your focus all on him? As if the man abandons his day for you like you do for him.” She was ready to remind her that she was supposed to be taking his mother for her hospital appointment soon. Not because anyone was paying her for it. Or because she had nothing to do. “I get the man likes you. I have seen the way he is with you. Sha, look after yourself because you are going at a thousand mile per hour.”
“Why can’t you be happy for her?” Kanyin glared at her as if she wanted to slap her. Then she exchanged looks with their quieter friend and shook her head.
She did not waste her time explaining how rude she found her action. “Issy, has abandoned all her plans for him,” she simply said.
“Tell me what becomes of her when he lets her down. What becomes of her dreams to go back to uni when she is a single mother of two?” She continued aggressively as Kanyin mouthed something muffled. Something that began with love. “Don’t give me all of that she can do it whenever she wants nonsense. Obinna is not Austin. It would be all about him, his family, spoilt kid and empire as soon as they get married.”
Biba stopped because Isio’s phone had started to ring. She sprang up and disappeared into her bedroom quicker than she had ever seen her.
“I get you. At least partially.” Kanyin said after a while.
She spoke as if the stretched silence bothered her. In the manner of a road worker filling holes. “I used to get distinctions on my essays before. But now I spend less time studying at night because I talk to my husband.” She played with the bracelet on one of her wrists. Letting her fingers linger briefly “One day I will get the balance right.”
“I’m sure you already do.”
“I’m not trying to pretend that the situation is the same. If Austin tried to tell me to defer my education, I would probably squash him with my small behind.”
Biba laughed in spite of herself. She could easily imagine Kanyin being as aggressive as described. Her small frame, her ammunition.
“Obinna’s age and wealth probably means he would be wielding more power than he means to in their marriage. But what matters is,” Kanyin held her gaze. “She is choosing him and the complications. As good friends, our job is to be there for her…”
She heard why she stopped when she did. Isio’s raised voice. It was so unlike her and it alarmed Kanyin as much as it did her.
“Bibs, something is wrong.” She rose when they heard her scream her sister’s name and wail, no.
She was on the bed, the phone on the floor, when they got to her room.
“What’s up, babe?” Kanyin knelt beside the bed and touched the back of her head.
Isio lifted her head off the bed. She opened her mouth, closed it and opened it again. “It’s Aunty Ejiro,” she blinked tears that wetted the cream casing of her duvet. “It’s my aunt. She won’t leave me alone.”
“What does that old bat want?” Biba had been told stories of the awful beatings and verbal humiliation that was her daily experience with that woman. Of how she cut and slashed her as though she was a piece of meat on a slab. “Issy!”
“She turned up at the house whilst Obinna, his brother and father were there.”
“I don’t understand. How did she find out?” Kanyin was asking something that she did not hear.
“Lohor said she just turned up.” A sob escaped her throat as her head dropped back on the bed. “She told them I’m a liar and a thief. That I tried to steal her husband.”