Isio did not talk much on the way home. She couldn’t have. Obinna talked almost all the way through. Explaining that he had missed her, that he was sorry. She let him come into the apartment because she believed Biba was home.
She was wrong.
“Where is Biba, sweetie?” He asked as though he thought caring about her friend would change what she felt about him.
She shook her head to inform him she did not know. Examining his words for the air of superiority they sometimes came coated in.
“I’m asking you because Anu is in London.”
She nodded without glancing at him. She knew Anu was coming to the city with the children, their nanny and someone else that worked for her.
They saw her on the day she returned to Ribble Greaves. Her warm hugs and affectionate greetings were enough to make Isio want to stay a few more days. But she had to return to work. Biba wanted to go home too.
Especially after Idriss, in his usual flamboyant manner, announced that they would be giving Biba a job at Aspire. Anu had been beaming next to her husband. Offering cheerful congratulations.
Although, Biba sank into a low mood afterwards, Isio did not let that moment waste away. “You will forever blame yourself if anything should happen to his wife,” she warned.
Biba had opened her mouth to say something, but she had kept walking. For just the evening before, she had seen Idriss’ hand stroke Biba’s leg whilst they were all sat around the grand dining table having dinner.
She knew what she would say. She knew she would say it would never happen again.
As she picked up her friend’s cereal bowl and tea cup and took them into the kitchen, she sighed. Seeing Anu again brought back the guilt that would not stop haunting her.
Idriss had been in their apartment, touching Biba’s arm and laughing with her as if she was his new bride.
What about Kanyin? What would Kanyin do if she found out?
Obinna followed her into the kitchen. “I’m asking about Biba because I know Idriss said he is gonna see her today.” He opened the fridge, saw that it was nearly empty and shut its door. “I don’t want anything to happen to Anu if Biba turns up there…”
“Get out.” She had uttered the words even before her emotions overwhelmed her. “You think people like us are scum. I don’t want you here.”
“Scum?” His eyes widened in horror. “Where did that come from? What did I say?”
“You look down on me. On my friend. You think you are better than us! You are not better just because you had three meals a day and attended private schools.”
“I’m not your sweetie. Not since you treated me like a beggar in front of your friends.” She tried to tell him what he did to her. How she thought she was going to lose her mind in December. Instead, she bolted from the kitchen.
He caught her in the sitting room. Knelt on the floor beside her whilst she cried. Her tears came in trickles at first. Then she remembered how his hurtful words took her back to her aunt’s house, to the unpleasant words she used against her as punishment.
Her aunt’s voice had started to follow her around again. Telling her how ugly she looked. How men would always let her down as soon as they saw her for who she really was.
“Isio, I’m so sorry.”
She tried to shuffle away from him but the puff she was leaning on would not budge. She wiped her face. Sat with all her weight so that he would not be able to turn her to him.
“I pray that you forgive me one day. I pray you do because I won’t forgive myself. I acted like a fool. A big fool.” He rubbed her back softly. Then he shifted closer to her. “The things I said just came out. It’s like when I lose control like that my mouth conspires to get me in more trouble. I have been known to say worse things to my brothers before. I once told Ifeanyi that he would sell his siblings to get laid given the chance. And Chibuzor, let’s just say I have called him a few unprintable names.”
“I’m sure he deserved them all.”
“Let’s call it my weakness. Something bad I inherited from my father. I have been trying to get rid of it all my life.”
She wondered if this was what Chib was trying to tell her. Although she knew whatever it was had been exaggerated. “Was Kelly ever at the receiving end?”
“Yes. Once.” He moved in front of her so that she could see him. “When she disappeared for days and left Bell. I came back from South Africa on Saturday and she didn’t show until Sunday evening. No one in the house knew where she was. I’m not proud of that moment.”
“Did you hit her?”
“No. Of course not. You know me, Issy.”
She did not apologise. She glanced at him and then looked away. At the blank TV, at her bag that she had dumped on the armchair when they came in.
“I know there is no excuse. I saw what my father did to my mother.”
“What did you do to Kelly?”
“I called her the worst mother on planet earth.”
She expected it to be something else. Something shocking. She had not known Kelly for long and despite trying her best not to judge, she was sure Kelly should not be described as a good enough mother either.
“That kind of thing bothered her, you see. She tried her best at the beginning. She tried really hard…”
“Good for her. Please can you go and tell her. I’m sick of hearing about how good Kelly was.”
“I’m trying to explain.”
“Is she still a part of your life? Is she still able to turn Annabel against me? Because until all that changes, I don’t see a way forward for us.”
“I have employed a lady to look after Bell. You don’t have to see Kelly ever again. You don’t have to see Chibuzor either.”
“Stop it.” His brother’s name reminded her that it wasn’t just about forgiving him. If she did manage to forgive him, Chib would tell him what happened in Ribble Greaves. He would not tell him, at the moment it happened, she was not herself. That her eyes were open but she might as well have been asleep.
“Issy, I love you. I have made so many mistakes in my life and I don’t want to make another one. Letting you go would be a massive one.”
“I told you in the car, I’m trying to get my life together.”
“I heard you.”
“When I nearly died, I realised I was not living the life I wanted when I was young.” It was much more than this. More like waking up to different needs and desires. Wanting to excel in her life and recover completely from her traumatic childhood. As she could not properly explain this to him, she let it go.
“I can wait,” he wiped the spot close to her right eye. “I can wait. Quietly in the background as a friend.”
She sat up and straightened.
“You don’t want to get married, I don’t want to lose you. So, let’s try to be what we should have been first. Let’s be friends.”
“They will be back soon. Getting ice cream does not take that long.”
Anu looked up from her IPad. Nafisah was standing at the door, holding Anu’s favourite mug. The mug her husband bought her with the inscription My FierceLady on it. She loved seeing this reminder whilst drinking her morning tea.
“You made me coffee, thanks.” She savoured the strong coffee aroma.
Her personal assistant came to her like this. With the unique ability to tell what she needed at the exact right time.
She had placed cushions on the sofa before Anu came in. A blanket on the edge. A stool next to it.
Nafisah came over and placed the mug on the stool. “They will be back pretty soon.” She patted the loose end of her hijab. She did this at times. Whenever something was on her mind.
Anu forced herself to smile even though the pictures of the girl she had been looking at made her yearn for her bed.
“I miss them when I’m not with them these days.” She stopped herself from adding more. From telling Nafisah that she would like to spend every day she had left with her children. Even the ones constantly referred to as her step children. She loved them all the same.
“You will be fine,” Nafisah said. “You have to be fine.”
“Is it okay if I go for my prayers?”
Anu nodded and thanked her. She returned to staring at the pictures on Biba’s Instagram page after she left. Until she started to feel herself become as uneasy as she felt when she noticed it.
It was when her husband told her about everything she had missed. About the party. About Ikumapayi eating too much and he avoided mentioning Biba’s name or looking at her.
Biba had seemed so uncomfortable too. And when her husband came home that evening with flowers and a card that spelt out love, she had known.
Anu picked up her phone, Kanyin had sent her the girl’s number. She had asked for it with the casualness of someone asking for water. She did not want Kanyin worrying.
Inside the kitchen, she thought of what to say to the girl. Nothing came to her.
She saw the work phone, the Samsung, she bought for Nafisah and picked it up from the table. She would ring Biba anonymously. Warn her off. Scare her. Perhaps plead with her.
She did not get to type in Biba’s phone number. A message had come in for Nafisah and because she recognised the phone number as her husband’s, she read it.
You look so beautiful today, Naffy xxx. It read.