Anu’s house was the biggest Isio had even seen in the UK. It was bigger than Funmi Lawal’s. With sprawling rooms that were decked in luxurious furniture and walls washed in vibrant magnolia. Outer buildings that were big enough to house families and a beautiful garden with stunning flowers, an apple tree and a magnificent treehouse for the children.
The living room was painted in pale purple. It housed a few paintings and Isio gawked at one of them with batik patterns whilst Kanyin fetched drinks. Biba had rushed outside to take a call when they arrived.
“The house belongs to my stepmother,” Kanyin had sneaked back in with a tray of drinks. “Daddy bought it for her as a birthday present three years ago.”
“Really?” Isio did not think Kanyin’s father was that generous. Or perhaps he had to be generous to cover his affairs. It reminded her of what Obinna told her the day he brought home a plain purse for her. Something about the generosity of one’s heart counting more than the wallet’s.
Idriss’ relationship with Biba which Biba called a caring uncle and niece relationship was much more. She discovered this on Sunday. When she came back from church to find Biba straddling the man she described as a caring uncle. She had been mortified. Incensed. Especially when Biba didn’t say no to Kanyin’s offer to come to Ribble. “You can’t go,” she had yelled at her. “You can’t screw someone’s dad and continue to play bestie with them.”
Yet, it didn’t stop her from dragging out her Louis Vuitton bags. Saying, “I have to go chill, babes.” Adding, “I have just told Chib he is not my baby’s dad.” As if it was meant to appease her.
“I have to go,” kanyin tapped her on the shoulder, startling her. ” I need to go and check on my brothers and sister on the other wing. I need to make sure the nanny is still breathing.”
“I can come with you. Or do you think it will be too much for them meeting a strange woman whilst your parents are away?”
Idriss had taken Anu to Croatia to see a cardiac surgeon recommended by a friend. On the drive from London, Austin had explained that Anu didn’t want to go. She wanted to stick with her consultants at home.
“You can come. I just hope Abdul does not chase you round the house. He likes light skinned, leggy women like you.” Kanyin picked up a clear glass with a drink the colour of fresh milk.
The consistency as it trickled down Kanyin’s chin revealed it was something much more than milk. Like the pomegranate juice she had seen her drink to help her conceive. The Well-Woman vitamins gulped down. The fertility drink Austin’s cousin bought from Peckham. The one Austin’s mother suggested. Hastily thrown in the bin by him.
“Austin will come back here tonight, won’t he?”
“Yes,” Kanyin placed the cup back and wiped her chin with one of the serviettes on the tray. “He has gone to Aspire in Ribble. Then he is going to check on the house there. In Ribble. Not in Cheshire.” She added with a bright smile.
Isio knew why. When they drove past a welcome sign at the border of Cheshire, she had asked if Ribble was in Cheshire. Austin had gently informed her that Ribble was in a different county.
“Na you sabi. The only place I know is London.”
“Look at this one, like you think I have forgotten how you got lost in Stratford. Five minutes from the house o.”
“The taxi even dropped you next to where you were going.”
“Biko, what will I gain from knowing every street in that City.” She longed for the jumper that kept her warm in the car. But the Filipino woman in a blue apron and beige shoes– the one she believed to be the housekeeper – had taken it to the guest room. Along with her single bag. And Biba’s numerous patterned Louis Vuittons.
Biba came in, clutching one of those bags and her phone. Wearing on her face, a rare expression. Her bearing when she stopped beside them prompted their questions.
“What is it, Habiba?”
“Did someone steal one of your bags?” Kanyin’s joke did not reflect Biba’s grave face. “Or your dad has said he is never gonna send you money again?”
“Not now, Kanyinsola.”
“What’s the deal then?”
“Stan.” Biba grunted.
“He called you about the baby? I hope he pays up. You need the money, babe.”
“He is not gonna give me a cent. He said I should sell the designer bags and shoes I pose on Instagram with.”
“Oh please. We will sue his ass. He can’t dodge this after not dodging your legs. Who does he think he is messing with? I will personally pay the lawyer.”
“He is saying he can’t be the dad. That he can’t impregnate a woman.”
Isio would have sniggered like Kanyin. She would have called him a liar. But their friend had grabbed her head with both hands. “What exactly did he say to you?”
“He said he was ill when he was young. That the doctor said it might have affected his boys.”
“What did he have?”
“Let me think,” Biba yelled. “You are doing my fucking head in.” She whimpered and when Kanyin led her to a footstool with gold edges and legs, her face showed she regretted lashing out. “Sorry. My head is just mashed.”
“It’s okay.” Isio picked up a carton of Ribena from the tray. She unhooked the straw, took it out of its seal and passed both carton and straw to her.
“Thanks.” Biba poked the straw through but did not drink from the carton. She was looking round the room. At the paintings, the studded chaise lounges and high recliners with gold legs. She was looking round as if it mattered to her what Idriss bought his wife. But Isio knew it didn’t. That she was simply trying to distract herself.
“He said he had mumps, Issy.” Biba said. “He sounded like he was telling the truth…”
“Complications from mumps especially with other conditions can affect sperm count. Only rarely, though. Boys usually get vaccinated. Was he not born here?”
“He was born in Accra,” she shook her head. “How do I know he is not lying?”
“Or trying to dodge paying for his child?” Kanyin was the loudest. She sometimes got like this. Stamping her feet and clapping her hands to get her points across. “Or maybe he is desperate to save his relationship with your cousin.”
“He even had the nerve to tell me not to tell her.”
“She deserves to know if he is shooting blanks.”
“He is not shooting blanks.” She shook her head again.
“Babe, shebi you just said he does not want your cousin to know. Why would he be keeping it from her if it’s not true. Why would he even lie about something like that?”
“I want to go to the room. I’m tired.” Biba stood up, flung her bag’s handle on her shoulder and marched out of the room. Leaving behind the Ribena carton and the kind of silence laden with words.
Isio was happy to chat with Jade. Her brothers were asleep but the nanny did not mind letting the girl chat to her sister and her friend. The girl walked around with Kanyin’s confidence. She was slim and her dark skin glowed under the chandelier’s light in her sister’s sumptuously rugged room.
They snacked on crisps and nuts whilst waiting for Austin to come back. “I don’t like to eat without my boo,” Kanyin had said. Isio was fine with this. She didn’t want to have to go to the guest room to tell Biba it was time to eat.
None of them had to do this. She came out, shortly after a car drove into the compound, Olamide’s new song blaring from it.
Idriss came in, grinning. He hugged his daughters whilst Kanyin asked him why he had come back early.
“You are supposed to be in Croatia. What happened?”
“Calm down, princess.” He picked Jade up, kissed her forehead and greeted Isio. He glanced at Biba without greeting her. “Your mother is fine. She is still there undergoing tests.”
“She is on her own?”
She asked me to come back so you have me here with you to see in the New Year. Miles picked me up in his private jet. He is here too and some of the London crew will be driving in shortly. Hope you girls are ready for a party?”
Isio swapped her jeans and top for a dress that showed her back. She heard the cars arriving whilst putting Jade in bed and rushed through the last page of the story she had been reading to the girl.
It was hard for her to be warm towards Ikumapayi, his wife, Chib and the others that trooped into the house. The man she thought was coming did not come.
Miles came towards her and whispered that Obinna could not come. That he was worried about Annabel.
Uche arrived with her husband shortly after Austin came back from Ribble. She introduced herself as a friend of the Okadigbos. Isio stared every time the woman stroked her protruding belly. Or reached for her husband. It was the husband that made trips back to the car to bring in the food they brought with them.
Uche helped Kanyin and the housekeeper in the kitchen. Walking briskly every time she came out with something.
Isio left Biba in the company of the men. She had changed into a dress too. Her worry discarded with it.
Isio was in the smaller living room, drinking from the bottle Austin passed her when Chib came to join her. He had brought her another bottle.
“Is Kelly still hanging round your brother?” She giggled afterwards. Not wanting to sound as if she wanted Obinna back.
“He is trying to shake her off,” Chib said.
“Trying? Really? That’s what you call trying?”
“I bet she is with them right now.”
“Yes, it’s New Year’s Eve. How can he keep her away from her daughter on a day like this?”
“I rest my case.”
“Stop this.” Chib’s voice was unusually grave. “You are the one that dumped my brother. You are the one that walked away. Why are you acting like you think he ain’t got your back? You know the guy is loyal.” He huffed, stood up and took his phone out of his jeans’ pocket.” I’m gonna get out of here. Seeing you like this is killing me. I don’t know how to make things right.”
She felt sorry for him. Having not bothered to respond to his numerous messages asking how she was, she had not known he wasn’t coping.
“The accident wasn’t your fault.”
“What about what I tried to do to you?” He swore and punched air with his fist. Face scrunched up the way the fist was. “It was gross. I was a complete jerk.”
“The weed you were smoking didn’t help.”
“I’m done with it. No more smoking, babe.” He returned to his seat beside her. “I have moved out of my brother’s house. I even got a job in a phone shop.”
“Really?” Obinna had sworn to change his living arrangements. To reduce his family’s dependence on him. Yet, it was his brother she was pleased with. Not him. “I’m so proud of you.”
“It’s Miles and Idriss baba you should be thanking for me. They gave me references.”
In the low light of the room, he seemed even less like himself. But she had noticed it with his quietness earlier. And his patience when Uche forgot to serve him pepper soup.
“Do you think you can forgive me one day, Issy?”
“It depends. Are you willing to get drunk with me?” She picked up her bottle again, laughing when he called her a drunk.
As the songs changed, Chib fetched them even more bottles. Her laughter became louder, his jokes funnier. His stories about Obinna were painful to listen to. At the same time, she wished to have him with her forever telling her about the man she once loved. The man she still loved.
Chib was staring at her, calling her beautiful when Austin came into the room. Isio had not realised they had been in that living room for that long. The guests had all gone and what was left were the beer bottles, glass cups and plastic bowls, plates and cutleries strewn around the room. The housekeeper was pushing out what looked like a cleaning trolley. Isio could not be sure. Her eyes would not open wide enough.
“Let me help,” Chib said. “I will take Issy to her room. Just tell me where it is.”
“No,” Austin barked. His grip tightened around her. “Just go. Right now.”
She wanted to thank Chib. She wanted to say good night. The words would not come to her. Not even when Austin led her to a room that seemed familiar. She crawled under the beddings, flattening herself on the bed.
She heard herself giggling as Kanyin appeared from somewhere and kissed her husband’s lips. She was dressed in matching bra and knickers and shoes that made her legs appear longer.
“Sorry, hubs.” She kissed him again, letting him squeeze her pert backside.
“It’s okay. I know you have to stay with her. We can’t leave her in the guest room all by herself when that Biba has disappeared.”
“Have you tried ringing her? She just vanished.”
“She is a grown woman. Unlike Issy, she doesn’t need our help.” He kissed her forehead a few times and her nose, once. “Make sure Issy doesn’t fall asleep on her back. She might throw up, she should be on her side.”
“Calm down, I will look after your oga’s girlfriend. We don’t want Obinna sacking you.”
“Ah, heads will roll if anything happens to his sweetie.”
“Oh, listen.” She squealed so loud that Isio pushed her head under the pillow and shut her eyes. “Miles is going back tonight. He is paying his pilot a lot to get this surprise carried out.”
“So, it’s happening? Anu will be here in the morning?”
“Just for New Year’s Day and then she has to go back to the hospital. She really wants to surprise Daddy. You know how much she hates not seeing him.”
“Don’t worry. It will be a cool surprise. I will go and sleep on the first floor. You know he will know we are planning something if he sees this face of mine. Good night, wifey.”
Biba was almost drifting off when the door opened and then closed with a quiet click. Idriss had been in the shower for a while and she had started to wonder if he had abandoned her.
He pulled the sheet off her and clicked his fingers. “Don’t fall asleep, lepa.”
“And what if I do?”
“Shey you want to see trouble ni. Don’t worry, you will see how I will slam you like I don kolo if you fall asleep.”
He walked around with the air of a man that would not apologise to no one. Stunning in his nakedness. Dabbing aftershave on himself and moisturizing slowly. When he joined her in bed, he started off by kissing her mouth. Tasting her patiently.
The presence of his wife’s things in the room and her perfume’s scent kept her from letting him stir her. But he knew her and her body. He knew how to rouse her and push her to peaks she had never neared. By the time, his mouth let go of her nipple, she was already whimpering his name.