*** *** ***
Obinna waited for his mum to finish in the bathroom patiently. She was in a kaftan, holding on to the towel rail, breathless and hunched over when he went back in.
“Mama,” he rushed over, picked her up and carried her gently to her bed. “Why didn’t you ask for help?”
“You are not fine.” He picked up the hand towel on the bed and dabbed her wet forehead with it. “Should I go and wake Isio? Is it time for your injection?”
“No, don’t wake her.”
“I’m sure she won’t mind. It’s her job.”
“Nna, don’t.” His mother crinkled her face in a smile for his benefit. “Isio is never late. She will come and give the injection when it’s time. What I need you to do is get me a blouse and skirt and then put them next to me.” She pulled off the towel on her head revealing a completely bald head.
Obinna suddenly felt the need to sit. He dropped the hand towel in his hand. How could he have stayed away with his mother this bad? He was home when her hair started falling out in large clumps. Flying everywhere, trying to reach every corner of the house in the same manner cancer cells invaded her leaving her crumply and old. He had never seen his mother look this old, frail and haggard.
“I’m better now,” she touched his hand. “Isio suggested I shave it. It will grow back.” She coughed. “What do you think of her?”
“You have met her, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” he picked up the towel. “Let me get your deodorant and moisturizer.”
“She is a very nice girl. Make sure you ask her to come tonight.”
“Of course. She has to come. We owe her a lot.” He trudged over to her dresser and took his time picking up her blue-lidded moisturizer and can of deodorising spray.
“Please be nice to her.”
“Mama, I’m too old for all this your matchmaking.”
“Who is trying to matchmake you?” His mother’s laughter ended in a coughing fit. She waved him off when he started towards her. “So, you think a girl as young and as beautiful as Isio would be interested in a used man like you?”
He raised a brow. “Used? Really?”
“You think I will introduce you to someone again after the fiasco with Angel’s family?”
“I didn’t think so but…”
“Please, it’s my granddaughter I’m concerned about. We need to find her a baby sitter. Or, are you not the one that said it is illegal to leave them home alone at her age in this country?”
“Yes,” Obinna said. He would be busy for a while. He had known he needed to hire someone for a while.
“Then you better plant a smile on that face and get her to say yes to the job. Before a nice young man comes to sweep her off her feet.” She clicked her fingers. “Pass me my cream, perfume and spray, abeg.”
Although he wanted to say he was no fool, that he had known her all his life, he simply passed her what she wanted, kissed her head and left her to get dressed.
When he walked past his bedroom on his way back from checking on his sleeping daughter, he thought of Isio. Last night, he had been gobsmacked when he saw her. He was accustomed to meeting beautiful women. But it was rare to find such beauty in someone so humble, so meek. Although, it would not have mattered if she was a raving, pompous woman. After all, those kinds of women were the kind he had been drawn to in the past.
Like Angel. Like his ex-wife. They were all beautiful.
But Isio was more than beautiful. Exquisite. Slim with an oval face. A high forehead and high cheekbones that were striking in a way that was typical of North East African women. Her skin was too light for the kind of East African countries he was thinking of. For a Nigerian too. His mother told him she was Urhobo when she asked him to be nice to her. He had not expected her to be as beautiful, as appealing. Just having her next to him awakened his senses in the way nothing else could. Last night, he found himself struggling not to desire her. How could he? She was a stranger he had just met.
He picked up his phone from the kitchen counter downstairs. Waiting for him was message from Angel. The smile on his face began to wane as he read what she had sent him.
I know you are impotent. Yes. I know you can’t perform. This is why you didn’t touch me. You better put the money I asked for in my Lloyds account. If you don’t want the whole world knowing you didn’t rise to the occasion when I undressed for you.
He was chuckling, shaking his head when he heard the doorbell.
He let Idriss in. “Bawo Idirisu.”
“Kedu maka?” Idriss’ Igbo had never been great. Despite several years of friendship with Emeka, Obinna’s brother.
“What’s up, dude?”
Idriss was looking up the stairs. “Idriss, your boy is doing just fine.” He drawled when he said his own name. He liked to do this, drawling the last part of his name. He would often say there was no one else like him. No other Idriss but countless named Idris out there. Idris not Idriss.
“Where is the nurse?” His eyes were twinkling with excitement. They reacted, every time he thought of or saw women. “Ifeanyi said she is a ten. Oya, introduce us.”
Obinna led the way to the kitchen. “Please be nice. None of your stupid jokes.”
“Let me school you, girls love someone that can make them laugh.”
“Not this one, play nice.” Obinna picked up the cup, plate and cutleries his untidy brother used yesterday and dumped them in the sink. He was not sure why he felt the need to protect a woman he met just yesterday.
Obinna’s laughter although deep and distinct did not sound as loud as his friend’s. The man’s laughter started with a sputtering burst swallowing his part of the conversation. He was dark skinned with teeth that were too white. A gold watch was strapped to his wrist. Gold rings on three fingers. The rest of his clothing, suit jacket, white denim and shoes looked like they came from a rich man’s shopping catalogue.
The men were in the kitchen, at the dining table drinking coffee and eating chin-chin from the same bowl. The chin-chin, Isio bought for Annabel.
They had a running laptop in front of them on the table. Isio said morning as she entered the kitchen. The men stopped laughing and as she washed her hands and started to get the medications ready, she wished she had woken up earlier.
She had showered quickly and dressed herself in her uniform. Expecting that he would be in bed, she wanted to be done and be out of the house before he woke up. She had woken up, burning with embarrassment. Their meeting and conversation from last night having come back to her in one leap.
“I hope you slept well?” Obinna asked. “Or did I ruin your night?”
She turned around and smiled. “Don’t worry about it. I slept well,” She lied. “How was your night?”
“It was good, thanks”.
“Would you like me to give you a lift to work?”
“No, it’s quicker using The Tube. Thanks…Obinna.”
“Call me Jay.”
“You want some privacy?” His friend asked. He was eyeing Obinna as if he had done something unusual. “You are not alone Mr call-me-Jay. Not like you to forget your manners. Are you going to introduce us?”
“Oh, you want introductions?”
Obinna picked up his cup and took a long sip. He was grinning when he placed the cup back seconds later. Seeming to enjoy himself until he noticed she was waiting. “Sorry, Isio. I forgot you have to go to work.” He pointed a finger at his friend. “This here is Idirisu Abdulkadiri. Father of five by three different women.”
The man sniggered and picked up his own cup. “I know your game. Trying to look good by rubbishing me.”
“He is actually a top dude. He is a good friend of the family. Aspire Development was his brainchild before Miles and I came on board. He started off at Aspire Estate Agency with his wife before they made it into the success story it is now.”
“He forgets to add that he owns a third of Aspire Estate Agency and it’s thanks to his big head we went off the chart.” The man stood up, took Isio’s hand and shook it. His eyes twinkled. They told stories of his playfulness. “I’m Idriss Akinwale. Idriss with two s.”
“You are the nurse that nursed our mum back to health, abi. Thank you.”
“You are very welcome.”
“I think you have met my daughter. She is the one who helped find you.”
“Yes,” she replied. Biba’s friendly neighbour, Kanyin was the one that knocked on the door wanting to know if she knew of any nurses wanting part time work. Isio gave her the phone number of the nursing agency she had worked for, on and off for two years. Every time her sister wanted more money. When her sister decided to get aso–ebi for a random girl’s wedding. When she wanted a car, she decided to give to Bolaji and when she requested money for his family’s business.
She remembered Biba telling her of Kanyin’s dad, a man whose employee birthed his twin-boys. Studying him now she could see how it happened. “His wife left, came back and left again,” Biba had chirped. “His marriage would have been over if he hadn’t knocked up his wife immediately.”
“Kanyin is very kind.” Isio remembered the Sunday Kanyin and her husband saw her waiting for the bus.
It was cloudy, a torrential downpour loomed. The air smelt clean and breezy. She had no umbrella and typical of West Ham, streets were empty of people, shops and outlets closed. She had no jacket too and the bus shelter, a small inner road one would not have kept her dry. When she saw them in their car and they offered to drive her to work, she jumped in. Luckily, Kanyin’s husband eluded as much warmth as Kanyin, joining in with their conversation happily.
“My daughter is kind?” Idriss raised an eyebrow. “If you had said the girl likes to shop. That she will spend money even in an empty shop, I would have agreed with you.” He laughed.
She would have laughed with him if she had not caught Obinna staring. Giving up on trying to figure out what he was thinking, she opened the cupboard and continued sorting out the medications. Smiling every other second at Idriss who involved her in their conversation about the unpredictable British weather.
She was surprised to find his mother dressed and reading her bible. There was a new radiance about her. Isio did not have to persuade her to eat this time. A full toast went down with a glass of cranberry juice.
What surprised Isio more was seeing her son waiting at the door.
Having gone to check on Annabel, she had said goodbye to the half-asleep girl and to Idriss who she found alone in the kitchen. She was disappointed and half-relieved that Obinna wasn’t there.
His face did not look as hairy as it did yesterday. He had trimmed his beard. Phone in one hand. The other hand in his mid-length short’s pocket. His top, a button through polo showed off his muscled arms, trim middle and shoulders.
What Biba said once about people opting for black to appear slimmer came back to her. Although his top was the colour of oatmeal, his shorts were black. She avoided his eyes as he asked her about his mother.
She liked it whenever he stared. Even though she could not be bold enough to hold his gaze. Her attention was diverted everywhere else – her hands, her shoes, her bag.
“She is better,” she moved her bag from one shoulder to the other. “Someone is coming to assess her next week. You won’t need me anymore now that her chemotherapy sessions are over.”
“No, we need you,” he said with a passion that surprised her. “My mother needs you,” he added.
“She is a lot better.”
“Thanks to you.”
“I can still come once a while to check on her. Like once a week or something.” Her voice did not come with the kind of confidence she was sure his female friends spoke with. She was sure they did not fidget or look away either. Unlike her, they would have attended the best schools and as adults, top universities. Not juggling studying and three jobs so they could pay for their sister’s school fees. “What I’m trying to say is, you don’t need a qualified nurse that often. The agency can send you a trained carer. It will save you money.”
“I can afford it.” Obinna moved closer to her.
“That woman suffered for me, my brothers and sister. She gets only the best. Part of the reason why I invested in Aspire was so I could bring my mother over here. This was before we knew about the cancer. She was seeing this Doctor in Enugu who thought she was collapsing because she needed deliverance.”
“It was the diabetes.”
“No one told me to take my mother out of his care. Especially after I found out this doctor’s wife was having lupus treatment in India.”
“You did the right thing.”
He checked his watch. “Let me drop you off at work. I don’t want you to be late.”
“It will take ages if I don’t use the Tube.”
“I will take you to the train station then.”
They were both quiet on the way there. An uncomfortable silence that made the two minute car journey felt longer. Yet she felt saddened when they passed the zebra crossing before the train station.
He parked the car, turned down the stereo and took off his seat belt. She thanked him. It felt humid. Outside, the fogginess had cleared. The sky’s greyness gone. It looked like it would be sunny soon and the walk down would have been lovely but she was still grateful for the lift. For the plushness of his car and the smell of newness.
Last weekend, she had to run to the station. The ticket attendant, a man with neat dreadlocks strained his neck over the ticket window. Her bag was open and she dropped her purse and train tickets whilst running for the train. It was the cleaner sweeping the floor that told her. Not the ticket attendant who was busy ogling her.
“So, what’s wrong with my daughter?” He turned the car stereo off, Flavour’s voice going off with it. “I went to see her when I got back and she was… different. She said something happened and you helped her. Something private.”
“She started her period.”
“Oh? Already?” His face fell.
“Don’t worry, I bought her enough supplies.”
“She has money.”
“I know. She told me after I bought the stuff.”
“That girl and her stinginess. Do you know she charged Chibuzor five pounds to use her phone last year? Just for a three-minute call.”
“She calls it a good business skill and she says she gets it from her dad.”
He laughed. The type of laughter Bolaji laughed during those days even when she had not said anything funny. It helped her feel more at ease with him.
There was a big smile on his face afterwards. She couldn’t help staring back. He was quite attractive, perhaps too attractive and it worried her that she had started to notice this.
“She wants to make this time app,” he said. “I asked her why. She told me, I want to make money like you did when you were young. Someone needs to tell her to chill, I didn’t venture into business until I was eighteen.”
“Eighteen is young. She gets her smart brain from you then.” She heard herself and stopped. “I should go.” She wasn’t worried about missing her train having missed the five past the hour one. The next one would glide in shortly. In six or seven minutes. If her legs would help her and carry her away from him.
“Yes, you need to go. Just one more thing, what are you doing later? I would like to thank you for everything.”
“Yes. Do you like Indian? I can pick you up from home if you don’t mind telling me where you live.”
Her stomach churned. Her heart thudded as if there was something alive in her chest kicking frantically in there. All from having to think of a reason why not. Although this could be because she also felt giddy from excitement.
It was too soon. But no one this fine-looking, successful and kind had ever approached her.
“I want to. But I’m not supposed to date patients or their relatives…”
He narrowed his eyes. “Oh, you think I’m asking you out.” He laughed. “No. It’s a family outing. My friends will be there. We will all be there.”
“I see. I can’t make it anyway.” She thanked him and got out of the car. She would have bolted if he didn’t insist on seeing her to her train. He paid for her ticket and she let him so he wouldn’t notice she was embarrassed.
Her train arrived at the platform three minutes before its departure. Its carriages half full. He stopped her as people alighted from the train, his hand tapping her elbow lightly.
“You misunderstood when I laughed.” He paused like someone choosing his words on purpose. “You are a beautiful girl. I just…”
“Thanks.” She gave him a big smile, got on the train and chose a window seat. It didn’t escape her that he waited for the train to start moving. That he waved and beamed.
All you care about are your businesses and money. Why does it surprise you I did what I did?
He grunted. He didn’t want to think of that last fight. Not for her sake. For his. It hurt – the pain going right through to his core – whenever he thought of that day.
Annabel held on to him during the journey to their second home in Port Harcourt, her tears falling every now and then. He hugged her despite wanting to tell her to stop asking for her mother. How could she have understood? At six, all she understood were her books. Her princess stories. Disney fairy tales.
How could he tell her, her mother did not care about her. Or him.
She had chosen the life she had before because it made her happier.
“Mummy and Daddy are separating,” he said instead. “That doesn’t mean we don’t love you. We just want different things.”
Offering the same excuse, worded differently to his parents and siblings. This time the words did not slide out of his mouth. Their assumptions did not matter. His mother’s rant about men’s inability to stay faithful to their wives. His father telling him he understood, that women were not easy to manage as if Obinna’s marriage ending cleared his father of his failures.
“Tell me you at least kissed her,” Idriss looked up from his phone when he walked in. “You were gone for a long time, dude.”
Obinna did not laugh. Nor did he take the seat he had been sat on before. “Get your mind out of the gutter. I’m not going to go there. You wan make she poison my mama when I mess up.”
“You will chop, clean mouth. Or you go forget how to use this thing. The girl is fine, full stop.”
“She is.” He muttered.
“You don’t have to do anything with her,” his mother’s tone had been urgent and persuasive on the phone. “Annabel likes her. But she has a career, so you can’t ask her to leave her nursing job and come and look after your daughter. So, you can meet her. Be sweet to her. See if you think she will do a good job. Then ask her gently. You know I have to go home to your father one day. And Chibuzor is useless, you can’t leave a dead dog with him. Please Obinna m.”
He had never been able to say no to his mother. Not before. Not After strange ailments stole her smile and glow. Leaving her with hollow cheeks, scared eyes and clothes that were too big for her.
“We have good hospitals in this country,” a friend of his father, the commissioner of health assured him. “They will cure her.”
He had been incensed when he heard that the commissioner’s wife was at a hospital in Singapore. The wittering man with facial hair as thick as that of a woman prattled on about spending on infrastructure once. It is well, everyone at that dinner party chorused when he narrated how lack of resources killed his son decades ago.
No more sorrow, joy for all. That was his slogan. Perhaps he meant this only where his family and close friends were concerned. Obinna had seen his daughters decked in the trendiest of clothes chauffeured around by men who did not look well paid. His son, flanked by girls, chortling like a fool.
He thought of Isio. She was too timid to have lived a life of opulence. His mother had not spoken about her background. He wondered if he had simply become too old for it to matter.
He didn’t need a woman by his side. What he needed was a female guardian for his daughter. A nanny of sort. Someone whose affection did not come in trickles like her mother’s. When he paid her in cash and presents. When he stayed up to please her.
Even on those days when he had to leave home at dawn, he tried to please her. Although there were times when weeks passed before he made it back home.
“How much do you think she will want an hour to look after Annabel?” He dragged the chair close to Idriss and sat on it.
“That depends,” he looked up from his phone for a few seconds. “On if she has to warm her boss’ bed too.”
“Do you always have to link everything to sex?” Picking up his cup, he inspected its content and wondered if to drink the cold, bitter dregs. “I’m not like you. Employees are off limit.”
“This no be back home. Your houses in Lagos and Enugu are big. Your housekeepers will not get that close to their oga. I know Mummy will not allow any yeye girl near you…”
“My mother treats everybody like family,” Obinna interrupted. “Apart from the busty secretary that used to work for my father back in those days. Let’s just say those two were like cats when they were fighting. Even my father fled the scene. I can still remember Chibuzor screaming my mama from where he was hiding under the table.”
They laughed together. Even without him having to put the image together, slotting in each piece to recreate the picture for Idriss, he seemed to have an image.
“Be careful sha,” Idriss said after a while. “I know Mummy wants you to employ her. But things can get complicated here. Back home things are different. My wife’s uncle is something else. His wife, Alhaja will not even let the girls working for her wear make-up. Over here, the boundaries are thin. You have to be nice to your employees or they can sue. Your nanny will call you by your first name and ask you to make her a cup of tea.”
“I intend to put boundaries in place if she agrees to work for me.” He ignored his friend’s sneering.
“I will remind you in nine months. Let’s finish up here. I need to go and greet Mummy. I won’t be able to make it tonight.”
“Who are you chatting to on that phone? I hope you are not doing the dirty on your wife.” Since meeting him and spending time with him, he had come to understand there were men like him who would always struggle to stay faithful to their partners. Men like his father. “Don’t split Aspire up. You know your wife is crazier than you. She go pack everything including your children and cutleries. She will even pack furniture from our office sef.”
“I’m chatting to the girl that’s gonna keep me warm tonight. Two weeks without it is no joke. This is why I hate traveling. And iya yi does not like to leave Junior when he is not well.”
“What am I hearing? You want to play around tonight?”
“I’m chatting to my wife. Dude, chill. She is telling me what she is going to do to me when she gets to London.”
Biba downed the shots and proceeded to make herself another one, giggling every time she dropped or spilled something.
“Calm down, Biba.” Isio managed. Her eyes had started to fail her. Biba’s hands were moving too fast, as if her hands were in a different universe from her body. She felt like putting her glass down and lying flat on the floor. “I should not have had that glass of wine,” she whinged remembering how her legs barely carried her at work. “Drinking without food when you are tired is a bad idea.”
“Not having a social life is what’s not good for you.” Biba gulped down her drink. She staggered as she made her way back to the puff beside Isio. “Although staying in and drinking on our own is just as sad.”
Isio studied her friend with her primed face and mesh dress that revealed her caramel hue in glorious abundance. Her golden, blonde locks were down. Shinning. Smelling of the hair products Isio could never afford.
“I know you are looking for a companion. Sorry, Biba I’m not going anywhere. I’m tired. You know I’m working in the morning, babe. My half of the rent is due next week. My sister is expecting some money too.”
“What if I tell you we are only going next door. Kanyin’s husband is going away and she wants to throw him a party.”
“Why spend their last night with people they don’t know.” She thought of the day Kanyin and her husband dropped her off at work and felt guilty. “I like them. But I’m just tired.”
Whilst on her way home, she had received an email from the nursing agency asking her to cover all of Mrs Okadigbo’s shifts. According to the email the older son called, asking if they could have just Isio from now on. The other shifts were usually covered by various nurses from the agency.
After listening to Elohor’s long voicemail about wedding preparations and her well-crafted text about waiting for an ‘alert’, she had to say yes to more shifts.
“Chib will be there too,” Biba continued quickly. “I know you don’t like him yet.”
“Have you not heard everything I told you about my day yesterday? The guy freaks me out and you are trying to matchmake us.”
Her friend liked doing this. Listening but only taking in what she wanted. Despite telling her about Chib harassing her at work, she had chosen to ignore this.
She had been dismayed when her friend told her of meeting Chib at Kanyin’s apartment one day. She knew he was the type that would use this to his advantage. Soon enough, he started to message Biba on social media.
It was a man’s voice that woke her up. She remembered Biba leaving for next door, a sulky scowl on her face. She didn’t remember falling asleep or balancing her head on the puff.
She looked up and for a moment imagined she had conjured up the image.
Why would Chib be standing in front of her? She wasn’t at work.
“Bibs told me I would find you here.” He said as he shut the door.