She was asleep. She had been asleep since moments after he passed her two round painkillers for her stomach. Strands of hair had been tucked to the side of her face by him. Her bra strap pulled in place. Yet, she slept on.
It was soul-satisfying watching her sleep like this. Watching her drift off. It wasn’t because she was clad in her bra and knickers and his groin throbbed. It was simply because, she made him smile.
He yawned again and stifled another one. His eyelids were puffy and his body weighed heavy as if he had not slept for weeks. They spent a chunky part of the night talking. Until there was almost nothing left to talk about.
He had been unable to drift off the previous night. Filled with dread because of his relationship and his dwindling savings. And now that she was in bed with him – even though they were in her bed – he wanted to start the day with a love song.
He wanted to apply for all the jobs he read about recently, jobs he thought were beyond his reach. He wanted also, to tell his mother and his friends to stop worrying about him. The woman he needed had come back to him.
She had opened her eyes. Mumbled something. He wasn’t sure if it was a greeting or a question. When her hand went to the small birth mark on her chin, he knew it was the latter.
“What’s wrong, beautiful?”
“I had a bad dream.”
“Really? Whilst next to me?”
“You love yourself too much, handsome.” She giggled. “You would marry yourself if given the chance.” She changed her tone when he narrowed his eyes at her, staring stubbornly. Willing her to tell him what it was. “It’s silly, really.”
“Talk to me.”
“It was a strange dream. We were playing in a park. I got angry when I couldn’t find you during our hide and seek game. So, I tore the picture you drew for me.”
“How old are you? Two?”
“I told you it’s silly.” The smile that had started to form on her face disappeared and her hand went back to her birth mark. “I know things are so complicated right now, though. This thing with Jackie…”
“I thought we agreed that monster probably made it up. Jackie doesn’t need to know anything and if you have to tell her, fine. As long as you don’t expect me to play happy families with her.” He searched her thoroughly with his eyes before kissing her forehead and the tip of her nose. “Don’t worry too much. Carry me with you, it will all be fine.”
“I’m not gonna blurt it out.”
“If you feel you must, fine. Just prepare me in advance. And don’t expect me to be cool with her in my house or anything like that. She nearly destroyed my life.” He stopped because she was studying him and he did not want her to know just yesterday, he felt like driving down to her uncle’s house to shout at Jackie. To shout until his voice gave up.
“You are too good to me. Do you know that?” She sighed. “I was so ready to give it up to you last night before mother nature showed up.”
“It’s okay, there is no need to rush. We will get that special night eventually.”
“Do you have to go back to Coventry?”
“Yes, there are a couple of jobs I applied for. I promised to help Grandpa round the house for a bit too.” He pulled her closer, one hand on her waist, the other, under her. “I told you, my mother’s adoptive parents are important to me, right?”
“Yeah, you did.”
He had continued to call Pastor Kameni and his wife, Grandpa and Grandma even after he had been told his hunch and suspicions were right. That, he was not a Kameni. And his ancestral roots did not stem from Doula.
“Are you going to be fine with this arrangement for now? I know Coventry is far. I will be doing most of the driving. And it won’t be for long. I will move back when the right job comes along.”
“Try and stop me. First thing, when I’m back to work, I’m booking time off so I can come down to see you.”
“Let’s practice how we are going to make out quietly then. Grandpa dislikes extra-curricular activities between unmarried couples.” He raised his head over hers and kissed her. Her lips parted slowly, under the pressure of his tongue.
The day he came back from Coventry and Kenny did not say much on the phone, he knew something was wrong. She came after his mother left for Prof’s, her eyes focusing everywhere but his face.
“Jackie knows,” she announced. “My uncle, aunt and mum too.”
“How did they find out? Did you tell your uncle?” He did not wait for her to speak. It felt easy for him to keep standing. To concentrate on his breathing, even when she shook her head, blurted no and held his waist with her hands.
“I didn’t tell anyone, Anthony. I didn’t even tell my mum when she came back.”
“They worked it out by themselves, did they?”
“Uncle Kola called my uncle from wherever he is hiding. My aunt then phoned Sister Yemi to ask her if it was my father not his cousin that got her pregnant.”
“Let me guess, she denied it.” From what he had heard about Yemi, Jackie’s mother, he knew she would have.
He did not apologise. Not for accusing her. Or letting his feelings overcome him. This had started to happen lately. From Monday, when he thought about applying for a school caretaker job. That same day, he broke his grandmother’s porcelain bowl. Watching it shatter to pieces on the floor, the first thing he thought of were excuses. Not apologising. “Don’t worry, baby-boy.” His grandmother had clasped her arms around him. “It’s only a bowl.”
Kenny held on to him. His lips stayed shut. Even though, he wanted to ask her why she did not mention this when they spoke.
“My uncle spoke to my mum and Jackie. He said it was the right thing to do… Not keeping this as another secret.”
“Looks like he’s done with all the secrets.”
“I know this is hard for you. But you asked me to carry you along. Can you come to this family meeting we have this afternoon? Please, my love.”
“Of course, I will.” He kissed her forehead and her lips. “Sorry, babe. Whatever you need.”
It was not hard for him at her uncle’s house, it was unbearable. Jackie seemed to giggle every few seconds. Even when her father was talking about forgiveness and acceptance. Even after her father told her to apologise to Tony.
His belt gripped too tightly, the room felt too warm. And when Pastor said it didn’t matter that Kenny and Jackie could be sisters, that what mattered was love, he was sure the man could tell what was going on in his mind. He wished like Taye and Mat, he had pretended to be busy and not attended.
When everyone else was tucking into fried rice and chicken, Pastor came to find him. He was checking his email to see if he had been invited for another job interview. He looked up from his phone, the older man’s shoulders and posture were slightly slanted.
“Are you okay, son?”
“Yes, Pastor. Thank you.”
“Good. I’m so proud of you. I need you to know that. You are a good man. And if you need to talk…”
“I’m fine. I’m.”
He picked up his glass cup and went to find Kenny to show her uncle he was truly fine.
She was eating her food slowly. Sat beside her was Jackie, her plate abandoned on her lap.
“I’m so happy, Kenny.” She giggled and glanced at Lola who had been sat quietly next to John all afternoon. “We are going to be close sisters. I’m going to be in your house all the time. I can’t wait.”
Kenny did not correct her. When it was time for them to leave and she asked if he had found her ring, he told her he had. He did not offer to give it back. She did not ask for it.
“Why don’t you drive down there if he is not picking up your calls?” Her mother was folding the bed sheet she had taken out of the tumble dryer. Folding it into neat lengths.
Kenny stared at her phone. Then, at her mother’s old, clunky phone on the table. She was about to ring Tony with it, hoping he would take her call if he thought it was her mother ringing him. They had spoken twice since he went back to Coventry. The calls were short. His apology during the second, spiralled into a whine about job applications and lengthy job descriptions.
“What did you do this time?” Her mother hung the folded sheet on one arm and took tentative steps towards her. “You know our men don’t like all this gra gra. Even though he was born and raised here, he is still a correct African man o.”
“What makes you think I did something wrong?”
“He is not picking your calls.”
“Are you sure you didn’t make him angry? You know, you and Taye like to act like your mother is Queen Elizabeth sometimes.”
“I have been acting like a fool for him.” She thought of how she said no to Jackie coming round after church on Sunday. How she went shopping with his mother on Saturday, even though she could have gone to see Lola.
She had been enraged on Sunday when Lola did not come to church with her husband, when John told her not to ring her cousin because he had her phone. “She has flu,” he said.
Her mother did not share her concerns then. “Pastor is a good man,” she had yelled. “Please don’t anger God by speaking ill of an anointed man.” She had gone on about how her sister confided in her about Lola. “She is taking calls from her former boyfriend. Tell me how many men will take that from their wife? How many will be nursing this same wife?”
Her mother was making her bed later, when Kenny asked her what she had wanted to ask her for days now. She asked from the door, gaze fixed on the wallpaper.
“What?” Her mother asked, abandoning the bedcovers she had peeled off the bed.
“I asked if you were having an affair with Uncle Kola.”
“Why would you ask such a thing? Why?”
You have all fed me lies. Kept shocking secrets and acted all Christianly. She did not get to say this as her mother started to cry. Calling on God to save her from humiliation she did not deserve.
“I didn’t just ask you, mummy. Uncle Kola… made it seem like you were.”
“Aah, that man. My God will punish him. He will rip everything he sowed.”
She went over to her mother. The tears in her eyes tore through her like pellets would and she wondered why she was asking these questions. Why she insisted on hurting her mother. “Sorry, ma. Let’s forget it, sorry.”
“Don’t say sorry. I’m the one that should be on my knees begging you. For opening my eyes and not seeing like a real mother. What kind of a mother goes to sleep with her roof on fire?”
“You didn’t know.”
“There is no excuse,” she wiped her tears on the sleeve of her cardigan. “I should have known. I should have known it wasn’t normal for my daughter to be sleeping during the day and complaining of stomach pain. I should have known and you should have told me. I would have believed you if you were the one that came to me.”
“He followed me everywhere, Mum.”
Kenny had faced it all. Trying to have conversations with her twin sister, talking to her uncle, Lola and her counsellor about it. Swallowing her mother’s pills and starving herself until her stomach groaned because she wanted control of something. A part of her life. Anything.
She realised as her mother wiped her face that they not spoken about it. Not really.
Her mother constantly wiped tears for a long time afterwards. She shouted at a few people on the phone. Followed Taye and her with her eyes as if that would undo what had happened. Kenny heard her agonising sobs whenever her aunt and uncle visited. Especially when Taye started letting older boys walk her home from school. When Taye refused to attend family therapy and started to come home smelling of heavily fermented Cider.
Those days, her mother would walk up to her. Open her mouth as if she wanted to say something, like she was doing now sat with her hands to her face on the bed. Instead, she would touch Kenny’s hair and ask if she had eaten.
“Why are you not angry with me?” Her mother asked. “Your sister is.”
She knelt before her. It wasn’t easy to get her words out at first, the familiar lump had formed in her throat. So, she showed her mother that she did not wake up dreading the day anymore, she let a big smile spread over her face.
“For a long time, Mum, you were the reason I got out of bed in the morning. Please don’t blame yourself. That man was clever. I was not even sure what was happening, myself.”
“He is evil. He even tried to paint your father bad after he died.”
“But why? Dad gave him everything he wanted. He helped him and his family.”
“I think he was after me. Even before your father passed, the fool called me, back then o… to say your father likes Yemi. That my little sister and my husband were having an affair.”
“That bastard!” Kenny exclaimed. “I thought you had an affair with Uncle Kola because of dad and Sister Yemi. Because you were angry.”
“No,” her mother shook her head. “I don’t care what they are all saying. Your father was the best husband ever. I knew him. Even if that oloribobo was telling me all sorts so he could snatch me, do you think I would have fallen for it? After experiencing what real love is?”
“I guess not.”
Her mother helped her up and shifted for her so that she could sit beside her. She stared at her with concerned eyes.
“I’m fine, Mum. I’m. Happy and ready for the rest of my life.”
“I wish Anthony and I would survive this.”
“I don’t think Anthony is angry with you,” her mother’s voice was tender. “He is tired of our family and hearing of the many mistakes we made. Everyone could see that at the meeting.” She stroked her hand in a light caressing movement. “I think you should give it time. The man lost his job. The stress of struggling to pay his mortgage alone, will be enough to finish any man. And give him plenty of time, to be fine with Jackie, Lola and even their father again.”
“Be patient with him. If God says you two belong together, iya mi, it will happen.”
Later, her mother woke her up from sleep. Tapping her with one hand, holding her phone with the other. “Pele. It is your sister.
Her mother had toddled out of the room before Kenny moved the phone to the side of her face and said hi. She let her eyes skim the room. At the corner chair, wonky wardrobe and the vintage stereo that used to help her drift off to sleep which she no longer needed. Anything that would stop whatever her sister had to say from hurting.
“We have to get Tony back.” Taye said in her usual blunt, direct manner.
“My Tony?” She did not get to add anything else before her sister interrupted her.
“Yes. You have to continue with your marriage plans, Kehin. If you don’t, our marriage obsessed mother will start to ask me when I’m getting married again.”
“She won’t pressure you.”
“Yes, she will. She has been planning our weddings since we were two. Or have you forgotten how she used to show us wedding dresses at that shop close to school? Or how she used to buy you sweets every time you watched that boring wedding show with her. The one she used to set her alarm clock to watch.”
They laughed at the same time. Taye’s one louder than Kenny’s.
They were nine when the wedding dress shop opened. The owner wore frilly dresses. She received them well in the beginning. Soon, she started scrunching up her face every time their mother ushered them in, claiming her sister in Nigeria was about to get married. Her mother’s face stayed the same for years as she repeated this.
“She only had a small introduction when she married Dad,” Kenny reminded Taye.
“And now she wants to have her dream wedding through us. She wants a big wedding for one of us. Limos, doves, twenty bridesmaids and a mile-long bridal train.”
“I’m not joking. She called Mat today and stylishly said she doesn’t like the simple registry wedding we planned. So, Mat came home and went straight to get a beer bottle and a calculator.” Taye softened her tone. “Please Kehin, say you will go with the whole big wedding thing. You know I hate dresses and I’ve already decided on a skirt and suit jacket. What If they try to force me into an Alexander Wang…”
“Vera Wang,” Kenny corrected softly. She glanced at her clock and saw it was past midnight, yet it did not worry her that she might not be able to get enough sleep. She felt completely awake. And thinking of her mother’s reaction after hearing Taye would like to wear a suit at her wedding eased her into a better mood.
Kenny and Taye had not spoken about weddings for a long time. Not since Uncle Kola.
Lola woke up to a sunnier day and an alert mind. The fog and drowsiness had cleared and the cold she had nursed for a few days did not leave her feeling heavy-eyed.
She reached for her phone and sent John a message. His voice conveyed a lot of worry when he called to tell her he had been offered some overtime yesterday.
She had to plead with him to stay at work. Having been off sick for a couple of weeks, it was not hard. “We need the money, Johnny. Please, just do the extra shift,” she had pleaded. And when that did not work she told him she would ask Jackie to come and stay with her.
“As long as it’s not Kenny,” he moaned. “You know, she doesn’t like me. She didn’t greet me on the day of the meeting. I even went to see her outside when you were talking to Mummy and she just blanked me.”
Lola was not sure how to react to what he said. Whilst making herself tea and toast in the kitchen, she decided to let things be. She did not want to choose between her husband and her cousin.
She opened the cabinet to the right of the cooker. She was looking for the lighter, so she could scramble some eggs for Jackie’s breakfast.
Inside the cabinet, underneath a box of matches were two packs of codeine-based painkillers. Lola picked them up and examined the one with a broken seal. A dozen tablets were missing from the pack.
John did not like painkillers. He avoided taking anything he considered not natural. Shunning paracetamols and vitamins.
Lola was holding the pack in her hands for a while, standing on the same spot until she heard movement in the spare room and went to get her phone.
She typed a message to her husband slowly.
Morning Johnny. Hey, I was feeling so sleepy when you went to work yesterday. I hope you won’t be angry. I really need to ask. My tea tasted strange. Did you put something in my tea? Just to help me sleep, I guess xx I think it helped anyway. Just asking, my darling xxx
His reply did not come until much later.
Na something like small paracetamol, I gave you. To help you sleep like you said. Don’t worry sha, it’s okay. You know I am a doctor. It is fine for the baby. As long as my baby mama is fine and sleeping well.
Shey, we are okay? Another message came soon after.
I’m supposed to go church for meetings but I can come home after work. Whatever makes you happy, wifey.
It’s okay, Johnny. Go to your meetings. I will make something nice for you. Love you.
Lola drove her sister home after binning the toasts her sister made her. She settled on the sofa once there and supported her back and sides with her mother’s cushions and throws. When her father came back, he brought home delicious suya that he let her have more of. Perhaps she appeared reluctant to leave because her father suggested Jackie should go back with her.
“Keep her, Omolola.” He grinned and hugged her twice.
Lola was deep in sleep when a sound woke her up. She plodded into her slippers, straight to where the sound came from. The living room, where she left her sister. Jackie’s Sky series had proven more desirable than sleep. She had begged to stay up to watch it.
Jackie was no longer spread out on the settee where she left her. She was holding the living room’s lamp over John’s crouching form.
“She hit me,” John pulled himself up with the corner of the centre table. “Your crazy sister hit me with that thing.”
Lola stared at her sister who had disappeared into a corner of the room. At her face that had started to get wet and the ripped piece of her blouse. She was muttering incoherently, John’s voice silencing her every time he spoke.
“This girl is mad. Really mad. See enh, I was on my way to the kitchen. I couldn’t even see who was on the sofa.”
“She hit you?” Lola did not take her eyes off her sister.
“Yes. Brother Tony was right. The girl is evil. A liar heading for the deepest part of hell.”
“Jack, what happened? Please, baby-sis. Talk to me.”
“She tried to make me sin, that’s what happened. She spread her legs, yakata. She has been after me since, Osaibvie. In fact, e don tey wey she start. Check her phone, you will see how many times she calls me.”
“That’s not true,” Jackie shook her head. “I lied about Tony. This is different. I woke up to find your husband on top of me. He tried to force his fingers between my legs.”
“Liar, you dirty ashawo. Who wants big orobo like you. If you open that mouth again, I will beat you to stupor.”
“Please, Johnny.” Lola went to him and held his hands. “I know my sister lies. We all know it. Don’t lose your temper. Please Johnny.”
His nostrils were flared and the air that came out of them fanned her face. The eyes above them, big and piercing held hers. They seemed to be pleading with her. The way Tony’s pleaded when her sister told lies about him. Lies that changed him.
When she saw him at the meeting, he barely spoke. He walked around with the strength of someone that could not take any more. And when she apologised to him in the kitchen for her part, he had simply grunted.
“Go and get her things from the guest room,” she told her husband. “She’s got to go. Please get her phone charger from our room. I want everything she owns out of here.”
“Thanks, my number one,” he kissed her lips. “Sorry, she dey do this to you and my child.” Bending, he kissed her swollen belly. When he straightened, he held her gaze firmly.
“It’s okay. Go and get her things.”
“Yes. I will drive her home. You can go and rest. I will take her to the house myself.”
“Just take her straight home. Please. I will talk to dad later.”
He turned, glared at her cowering sister then marched out of the room.
“Jackie,” Lola beckoned to her sister. “Get up. Let’s go home.” she fished her car keys out of the table’s drawer, hurried over to her sister and pulled her up. “We need to go. Now.”