So many things were happening to Bankole all at once that he hardly had time to catch his breath. In a short amount of time, he had accomplished a lot and had also drifted away from Beatrice. He was scarcely home or even in the country.
First, he had traveled for the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in New York with Guru and Mr. Duro. Then they moved to the UK for the Vodafone London Fashion Weekend where Guru made his first appearance on the runway as G&M’s new head designer. Upon their return, Bankole stayed long hours working in his studio at the office, preparing for the line’s first fashion show in Nigeria. He would return home only to shower, have breakfast and change, and then head back to unending hours of work. He made promises to Beatrice he couldn’t keep, cancelled dates she planned for them and was generally unavailable whenever she needed him.
Naturally, she suspected he was either beginning to lose interest in or was yet to forgive her, and was deliberately causing a rift between them. She also feared that Ruky was now the object of his attention but dared not bring up the subject as she felt she had lost her moral compass to judge him for straying. Still she planned to do everything possible to keep him. The fact that she messed up was not enough reason for another woman to reap the rewards of her hard work.
Bankole, on his side, had more serious issues to handle. He believed that despite the fact that he had lost his trust for Beatrice, they were still strong. He just needed time to fix things between them. His job was the only distraction that took him away from her. But he wasn’t ready or willing to compromise just to please her. He was determined to succeed after a life of hopelessness and lack of ambition. He felt this was his only chance. Nothing was going to make him screw things up. Not even Angela, whose stalking had taken on a different chapter than the usual emails, phone calls and text messages. Presently, the model was requesting for either the opening or closing spots at the G&M fashion show and she wanted Bankole to work the miracle for her since she wasn’t even on the list of models chosen. She wanted him to use his relationship with Guru to secure a most coveted spot; according to her, she couldn’t convince her husband why she needed to appear on that runway. As it were, she was solely on her own to make it happen and if Bankole refused to help, she was going to expose their one night affair to her husband.
The matter bugged Bankole a great deal and when he became confused on what to do, he consulted Khalid who advised him to do as the woman required to save his neck. Bankole wasn’t sure it was the best counsel. What would Guru think of him when he presented such a bizarre request? And if he gave in to this fancy of hers, what more would she ask of him?
He decided to put the matter aside for the time being so he could concentrate on work. The event was still three weeks away.
On Monday morning he was awoken by his new PA, a street style photographer who was an insomniac and believed the definition of Personal Assistant was to invade one’s boss’ private moments. But behind the lens, she was good and saved Bankole a lot of time on smaller projects.
Scolding her for waking him up rather too early, he cut the line while she was yet speaking and turned off his phone. It was dark when he peered through a crack in the curtain covering the window closest to him. His eyes still burdened with sleep begged to close as he buried his head on his pillow again. But a casual glance at Beatrice’s side of the bed revealed to him that she was not in the room. He raised his head in the direction of the bathroom.
He met silence.
Her phone was on her pillow, resting on the spot her head had dented and left creases. He went looking for her. Beatrice loved sleep as much as she did food. If she was awake at this time, then something was bothering her. He had a good idea what it was but he felt it wasn’t going to hurt to ask. Besides, he needed to assure her that things were still good between them.
He found her in the sitting room, watching a movie on very low volume. Blue light from the television cast a soft glow in the dark. She had spread a mattress on the floor from one of the spare bedrooms and cuddled a pillow with her eyes glued to the screen.
She did not answer. She hugged the pillow tighter. He got closer and to his dismay, discovered that she was sobbing. He didn’t ask what was bothering her. She was going to tell him after the tears, so he lay on the mattress with her. He was facing her. She couldn’t see his eyes but he could see into hers and he saw more than she would have loved for him to see.
She didn’t cry for long. It all ended when he put the pillow away, took her hand and gently stroked a spot that always relieved her.
“So you’re going to Paris on Wednesday?” She wiped her nose with a squeezed tissue paper.
“Coming back when?”
“Okay,” she whispered and took a long sniff.
“What do you want me to get for you?” he asked.
“Nothing.” Her answer came too quickly.
She shook her head.
“Baby, it’s Paris…”
“Take me with you.”
He stopped stroking her hand. “You know I’d love to but not now. We’ll go on our own when I don’t have to be working.”
“Okay.” Her voice came in a whisper again and although she held her tears, a slight motion of her legs indicated her sadness.
“Baby, I don’t want you crying like this. We’re on our way to living our dreams, just give me time to plant my feet in my career and make a name…”
“What about me, Banky? You want me to stay home…”
“Until the baby is born, then you can do whatever you want and I’ll support you. As it is, you’re in a fragile state and I can’t let you out there in this Lagos hustle. If anything happens to you, what do I tell your family?”
Her legs moved again but this time he stopped them by placing one of his own over them.
“Enjoy this time because when the rollercoaster ride starts, you’ll be begging to catch your breath.”
She drew in another sniffle. “Do you still love me?”
“Of course I do, Bea.”
“But you haven’t touched me in almost two weeks.”
“I haven’t?” He drew her nearer with his leg. “Let me touch you now?”
His hand made a journey from her thigh, all the way up to her breast and stopped there. He saw her eyes cloud over with desire as her body pushed into his. He planned to go gentle on her but she had other designs on her mind. Her need for him dictated the pace of their lovemaking which took longer than the usual and left them beat long after the sun came up. Subsequently Bankole managed a cup of coffee and a slice of bread or two before dashing off to work. He arrived late to the office where he met an irate Ruky and a team for a photoshoot waiting for him. After apologizing, he set to work. Unfortunately, the shoot turned out bad. One of the male models got in a diva mode and launched into a battle of words with Ruky after intentionally ruining the outfits she picked for him simply because he hated them.
Bankole stood in a corner and watched them without picking sides. The model wasn’t just anybody; he was a previous Mr. Nigeria and was notorious for being an ass. Ruky, on the other end, as Bankole had noticed, had this other side that took her job too seriously sometimes. Together, the warring duo made a bad pair. Bankole was going to let them hash things out on their own but Ruky pulled him in when from nowhere she accused him for the fallout of the shoot. It was then he decided to call it day, apologized again and rescheduled for the next day. As everyone began to leave, he walked to her.
“Can we talk?”
“No.” Her answer was harsh. She was sorting through outfits on a mobile clothes rack in a fast manner. Bankole stretched his neck over the rack to get her attention.
“Hey,” he called.
He made it round the clothes rack and took her hand forcefully, dragging her to his office. They walked in on his PA having breakfast on his desk, her legs stretched out over the table. The girl jumped to her feet, said she was sorry and ran out with her food, leaving crumbs from her burger on the desk. Bankole ignored the episode and faced Ruky.
“I’m about to ask you a stupid question, Ruky.”
“What is it?”
“Have you been on your period for the past three weeks?”
Ruky brought her eyes to slits. “I feel like slapping you right now.”
“I just asked a question. You’ve been cold and not nice to me since that Smush party. I took you to my house, you puked on me, I changed you and gave you my clothes to wear but the next morning you disappeared like that. You didn’t even tell me you were leaving. I came to work the next week and you started packing face for me. What did I do wrong?”
Ruky immediately went calm but she didn’t let it show. She thought he was cute the way he took his time to say his words, but she snapped out of the short reverie his distracting looks offered and upheld her cold exterior. Beatrice had been rude to her that morning when she walked into the guestroom and saw her in Bankole’s clothes. She told her in no uncertain words to strip from her boyfriend’s clothes and leave the house. Ruky did not blame her; she figured she would do the same if she was in her shoes. She was doubly ashamed of herself after sobering up that morning. She was not a drunk, could hold her alcohol and was neither a husband nor boyfriend snatcher. Yet that night she had lost her dignity and given the office gossips something to spice up their Monday with. It was a shame that nobody knew how hard she had worked to get where she was, how she had never been tempted to sleep her way to the top or how she had roamed the streets of Lagos in the hard days with her basket of manicure and pedicure accessories and tools on her head to make a living. It was more painful that she threw that all away because some man had dumped her callously and she fell into some kind of heartbreak.
Beatrice’s nastiness to her was the slap she needed to align her good head back on her neck. She started the following week as the Ruky she once was, readjusted and kept men at bay, Bankole particularly. The guy was charming in a way that fascinated her. It was either he was so good at what he did or he was oblivious of his effect on women. He was a calm soul; even his movements were measured and unhurried. And it had come to her not long after meeting him for the first time that she needed a change in her life, from the fast and the furious, the daily struggles, the competition that constantly plagued her days. She needed something, or rather, someone who would buffer her insane ambitions. Together, she had dollishly believed, they could be an island of calm even while surrounded by an ocean of craziness.
But she had killed such futile yearnings and presented to him a hostile front after the Smush party. She never thought it would in any way affect him.
“You did nothing wrong, Banky.”
“So, why the hostility?”
“Hostility? You’re imagining things. The way I relate with you is the same way I relate with every other guy.”
Bankole knew she was hiding something. He also knew something had transpired between her and Beatrice that morning but both ladies had denied speaking with each other.
“If you say so. But just calm down. Today you were really mean to that guy…”
“He deserved it.”
“I know but just chill. I’ll talk to him to behave.”
She pulled open his office door and walked away.
It was 1:37pm when Khalid drove in through the school gates. The sun was unkind overhead. He was glad for simple pleasures like air conditioning but he remembered that it didn’t come so easy for so many. He had a moment of compassion for those who could not even afford a car, the ones that got sandwiched in small buses and big ones, who had to sit for hours in the heat, enduring the traffic, only to go back home to no electricity. He shuddered at the thought and banished the whole disturbing image away.
Who bothered about such things when one had more pressing issues? Usually he would not care but these days, he was beginning to discover he had a heart for people whom he had no connection with, and often felt a ping of guilt when he could not help them in their distress.
He blamed it on Hope. She was infecting him with something he couldn’t quite describe. Maybe it was good; maybe it was bad. He didn’t know. It was just alien to him.
He parked his car in an area tagged PARENT CAR PARK. He had spotted Hope sitting on the wide steps that led into the school building. As usual, she was with Didi, her friend. They were shielded from the sun by the roof above them. Khalid often wondered what both girls discussed so intimately. He had once asked Hope but got a shrug and a ‘just girls’ things’ answer.
To his right was a large field that held the school’s playground and arena for sporting events. There were kids there waiting for their parents to come pick them up. The school at that moment was a beehive of activity as cars and parents came in and went away.
Khalid got down from his car and made his way towards the school entrance. He was expecting Hope to meet him halfway as she always did, and then he would walk her back to the car. However, today he made the long journey to the entrance and found her seated with a dejected look on her face. It was then he noticed she had not done her habitual, excited wave as she spotted him driving in.
“Uncle Khalid!” Didi ran down the stairs and hugged him. The little girl was fond of him even though he knew just a few things about her, like she was an orphan and was living with a rich aunt who was a renowned lawyer.
“How are you, Didi?”
Khalid looked past her and focused on Hope.
“Hi,” she replied flatly and helped herself up. “Can we go home, please?”
She walked down the steps and began towards the car without waiting for him.
“Didi, did something happen in school today?” Khalid asked.
“She won’t be happy if I tell you.”
Khalid watched Hope walking away. “It’s important that I know and I promise I won’t say you told me.”
“Okay.” Didi made a hand motion urging him to bend over. He did, and she whispered into his ear a tale that got his blood boiling. He shot up when she finished.
“Is your teacher in class right now?”
Didi answered with a quick bobbing of her head.
“And your principal?”
“In her office.”
“Please, go stay with Hope. I’ll be right back.”
He bounded up the stairs and entered the school. He made for the principal’s office after climbing another flight of stairs. Not caring to register his presence at the secretary’s office, he barged into the principal’s privacy. Fortunately, he met her alone.
“Mr. Abdul Khalid,” she said with surprise and a bit of touchiness, waving her secretary off who had followed him in.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Okafor.”
The door shut after the secretary left.
“To what do I owe this intrusion?” the mother of one asked, crossing her fingers over her tummy.
“Sorry for barging in like this but I am all sorts of angry right now. Hope’s class teacher, Ms. Blessing, has treated Hope unkindly and I want you to look into the matter and do something about it immediately!”
“Please, sit down, sir.”
“I’d rather stand. Hope is waiting.”
“As you wish.”
“She had an incident in class today.”
“An embarrassing incident. She pooped on herself.”
“She had asked for a toilet break during their English class but Ms. Blessing didn’t grant her one and so she messed herself up. One of the kids noticed and called Ms. Blessing’s attention and the woman embarrassed Hope and sang the Shame shame shame song for her.”
“Shame shame shame song? We don’t sing that here.”
“Well, she did and totally humiliated my daughter in front of her classmates. After which she made her sit in her mess until break time.”
“Wow.” Ms. Okafor sat up.
“I want that woman out of that class.”
“I’m sorry for what happened, Mr. Khalid. Hope told you this?”
“No, her friend, Didi did.”
“Didi? The orphan girl?”
“Yes. Hope wouldn’t speak when I came to pick her. She was gloomy and that was how I knew something had gone wrong. Ms. Okafor, I took Hope out of the school we initially wanted her to be in, and brought her here because you convinced me that you could specially care for her.”
“Hope sometimes has accidents like the one that happened today because of her spinal injuries. That is why she comes with extra clothes and underwear to school.”
“It is the job of her teacher to be patient with her, care for her and make her feel like every other kid in the class and not humiliate her the way she did today. She is just six years old! Just a child!”
“Mr. Khalid, calm down. As I said, I am sorry. And I will look into the matter to find out what really happened and then deal decisively with Ms. Blessing.”
“Look into the matter now!”
Ms. Okafor sighed. “Now, Mr. Khalid…”
“When I came here first, you told me all the classrooms had CCTV, right?”
“Well, we can view the footage.”
“It will take nothing out of you, Mercy.”
Ms. Okafor pressed her lips together at the direct mention of her name. Long ago, she and Khalid had known each other as kids, growing up in an impoverished neighborhood. They never spoke to each other then. He had been a troublemaker in the neighborhood and every kid stayed away from him. She wasn’t surprised that after so many years, that same anger danced in his dark eyes.
“Sit down,” she said, pulling a computer keyboard towards her. A plasma TV on the wall behind him went on.
“You said it happened during English class before break time?”
“Yes.” Khalid sat and faced the TV. Ms. Okafor signed into her computer and checked Hope’s timetable. Having made sure of the exact lesson period in question, she clicked on an icon on her desktop and the screen opened to CCTV footage of classrooms in the school. She clicked on one of the shots and Hope’s classroom came into view. She split the footage into frames and picked one. She and Khalid watched in silence as Didi’s story came to life in clear details. It was even worse than had been told. Ms. Blessing was seen being physical with Hope after the other kids went out for the long break; she had squeezed hard the girl’s shoulder discreetly as she guided her to the restroom, an act that Khalid’s eyes didn’t miss.
“See that? See what she’s doing to her? Hope is wincing. She’s in pain.”
Ms. Okafor was embarrassed. “Mr. Khalid, my sincerest apologies. I am so ashamed of this and so sorry. We have zero tolerance for abusive teachers here.”
“You should and that is why I don’t want to bring Hope here tomorrow to find that that woman is still in that class. If it so happens, I will immediately withdraw her from this school and you’ll have to face my wrath.”
Khalid stood up.
“I am sorry.”
“I’d also want her to apologize to Hope tomorrow.”
“It will be done, sir.”
“Good. Have a nice afternoon.”
He exited the office.
Hope was waiting in the car when he went back. Didi was gone. The sun was still blazing hot and he noticed the little girl sweating. He turned on the ignition and cranked up the AC.
“You want to talk about what happened in school today?”
“No. Let’s just go home.”
Khalid started the car and drove out of the premises. He took her home. When he parked outside the house, he noticed she was crying. He got down, walked to her side and opened the door. He stooped down.
“It was an accident, Uncle Khalid. I’m sorry.”
“Hey…” He leaned towards her. “You don’t have to apologize, sweetie. It wasn’t your fault. Your teacher was mean to you.”
“They all laughed at me.”
She buried her face in her hands but he scooped her in his arms and lifted her out of the vehicle. They had bonded over the past weeks; he spent more time with her than the other guys did. He was certain more than ever that she was his daughter and was beginning to consider not doing a DNA, just in case it proved otherwise.
Hope clung to him as they entered the house. He had a meeting in thirty minutes but it would have to wait. The child was more important.
Ten minutes away from Khalid, Uju was ushered into a doctor’s office and the news of her pregnancy revealed to her. She was ecstatic. Images of a beautiful baby, wrapped in warm clothes filled her mind. Khalid, who had been distant towards her lately, would warm up to her again. While she pondered on these things, the doctor broke into her thoughts with bad news.
“Your blood work and that of your husband’s also came in, madam. Everything was okay except for the genotype.”
Uju sat straight. She knew her genotype was AS but knew nothing about Khalid’s. Never once had she given thought to his. She hoped to God the look on the doctor’s face spelled something else.
“You are both AS.”
Uju dropped back into her chair.
“I am sorry about that, madam. But you do know what it means?”
Uju wasn’t listening. Her hand was subconsciously over her tummy as if to protect the fetus from whatever the doctor had to say.
“Mrs. Abdul Khalid?”
Uju stood up abruptly. “Maybe it’s a mistake. We’ll try another clinic to be sure. Thank you for your time.”
“Okay.” The doctor gave her a polite smile. “In case you do decide to keep the baby, you can register for your antenatal here and we’ll give you the best care…”
“Excuse me? Why won’t I keep the baby?”
“Well, most couples, having discovered their status, usually do prenatal tests between fourteen to sixteen weeks to determine if the baby has sickle cell anemia. If it turns out so, they opt for evacuation of the pregnancy straightaway…”
“I’m sorry, I can’t listen to this. I have a headache.”
Uju hurried out of the office, clutching the test results in her hands. She made it outside the hospital doors and breathed in to still her wildly-beating heart.
There had to be some mistake somewhere. She would drag Khalid for another test in a better facility. She stopped a cab. Once inside and shielded from the sun, her mind brought to notice a familiar face she had seen in the hospital’s waiting room. She tried to bring the face back into cognizance but couldn’t; she had been too upset upon leaving that she hardly took her surroundings in.
Back in the clinic, Beatrice sat in the waiting room, staring at a television screen on the wall with hazy eyes. She had just taken a break from her tears and was going to launch into them again in the next minute or so. She couldn’t believe she had lost her baby just like that. She hadn’t felt a thing. She was cleaning the kitchen and sensed an unusual wetness between her legs which she ignored. Almost an hour later while in the bathroom, she watched in horror as eleven weeks of pregnancy washed down the drain, mixing with water from the shower.
She dressed up and went to the clinic Bankole registered her in just a week ago. A scan revealed that the baby was gone. The bleeding had stopped by the time she arrived at the clinic and when they determined that it wasn’t life-threatening since it hadn’t been heavy, they scheduled her for an evacuation the next day and told her to go home and rest. Nobody explained to her exactly what caused it. Maybe she had an incompetent cervix or polycystic ovary syndrome or a bacterial infection or uterine abnormalities or maybe she had mismatched chromosomes with the father of the baby. When she confessed that she had rough sex earlier in the day, one of the nurses assured her it wasn’t what had caused the miscarriage, and then they sent her off on her way.
Beatrice could only make it to the waiting room. Home didn’t seem like the best place to be at that moment. She sat down to fix her eyes on some Yoruba movie on the African movie channel and let her tears go. The nurse who had been with the doctor in the ultrasound room was passing by an hour later and saw her still seated.
“You’re still here?”
She took her by the hand and led her to an office where she explained to her that miscarriages were more common and it wasn’t often the mother’s fault; neither could it be prevented.
Beatrice wasn’t comforted by her words. Her heart was weighed down by something else.
“Abi it’s not your first miscarriage?” the nurse asked.
“It is. It’s just that…my boyfriend… I can’t tell him I lost this baby. He’ll not believe me. He’ll think I had an abortion.”
The nurse was sympathetic towards her. She rubbed her back as she urged her to be honest with her boyfriend. She assured her that things would go well and advised, as Christian mother, that Beatrice waited until after marriage to have another child.
“Why don’t you just face your life and career? You’re still young. Don’t kill yourself because of a man.”
Beatrice didn’t want to hear more. She thanked the woman and informed her she was leaving.
Rather than take a cab, she went on a long walk until the heat began to make her feel dizzy. She stopped a cab then and went home.
Lunch was a blessing to Guru and came to him in a pink picnic basket with a note apologizing for why it had come late. He smiled. His mom was a sweetheart. He couldn’t imagine his life without her or think of doing anything to upset her. She treated him not only as a son but as she would a husband. She doted on him but at the same time allowed him make his decisions without interfering. She didn’t call him during work hours to bug him or demand to know his whereabouts. She was a young, cool mom who had seen her son walk towards the gates of death and snatched him back with a strong faith and loving arms. They were inseparable. No woman could take her place.
“Lunch by four?” Urena walked in on him about to take his antiretroviral drugs. He put them away and drew the food basket towards him.
“What was that?” she asked, pushing her hands into the pockets of her A-line skirt.
“Okay. Just wanted to tell you that I’ve fixed your flight issues. You’ll be taking Delta Airlines instead of Air France.”
“They messed up the booking, remember? Well, I refused apologies, so you’ll be flying first class on Delta. Bankole and Mr. Khalid are on business class. Thank me later.”
“I want to fly with them. Find a way to downgrade me, if there’s anything like that.”
Urena pulled a face.
“You don’t like nice things. I just noticed.”
“Do it,” Guru insisted and she turned to the door. Just as she pulled the handle open, his phone dinged. He was going to check who was texting but a phone call came in. It was his younger sister.
“Roy!” she sounded panicked.
“Have you gone online? Please don’t go online. I’m begging you, don’t go online.”
“Calm down. What’s the problem?”
“Just don’t go online right now. There’s a picture of you on the internet.”
“I can’t say it. Just turn off your data. Please.”
The line disconnected and he placed his phone on the table, puzzled at what he had just heard. However, his curiosity was piqued and he did the exact opposite of what his sister requested. He Googled his name and waited for the connection to go through; but he didn’t have to wait for long. Someone on his BBM pinged him and when he checked it out, he saw that a picture was sent to him. He tapped on the picture with a mind oblivious of what he was about to see. The picture expanded to fit the screen and on impulse, Guru dropped his phone on the table and shifted back as if the device had tried to attack him.
He held onto the armrests of his chair for what appeared to be an eternity as his thought process lost its contraption.
His phone was ringing, his heart racing, someone was calling his name but he sat on his chair motionless. The only thing that formed in his head was the word, GAY. He saw it on blog headlines, twitter hashtags, everywhere he went. It was going to follow him like a disease starting today.
No one would believe him when he would tell them he was straight and a virgin. He wouldn’t even believe himself. Was he straight? Was he a virgin? How had that picture come to be? How had he ended up in bed with a strange guy and both of them without clothes on?
He began to perspire in the coolness of his office.
Who on earth had done this evil to him?