The drive back to the house was unnervingly quiet. She had expected Isio to be asleep when she peered at her face. Her eyes were vacant. They had been red when she trudged into the car. Red because she had drunk enough alcopops for a big party.
Her jumper smelt of it. Her sleeve felt damp against Biba’s hand when she hugged her. She had guessed that her friend spilt drink on herself in her drunken haze.
Idriss stopped the car close to the house. This was timely. Isio jumped out of the car running towards the house, both palms on her mouth.
Kanyin followed, Biba stayed.
“Are you not going in?” Idriss asked. “Or you wanna come for a drive?”
She thought of the swift manner he led Isio into the car and how he yelled at Chib to back off. He cared too much about Obinna to be quiet about this.
“Please go and help your friend inside. I don’t want that silly girl throwing up all over my classy flooring.”
“You don’t have to tell Obinna about this?”
“I don’t do secrets.”
He drove the car to the garage, parking it behind an Aston Martin. The car was one of those that didn’t look as if it served its purpose of ferrying people about. It looked like one of those designed to be seen, to increase sales for its makers and help a select few show off their wealth.
The cars beside it were as seamless in appearance. They were in cheerful colours that made her think of driving in warm countries. Of home and sunshine. Of heat, strong enough to warm the soul.
The silver Volvo in front of the cars did not seem like a car he would drive. She imagined his wife in her drab suits in it. Frowning or trying to force a pleased face. The same way she appeared in photos.
“Id,” she started softly. “Issy is clearly drunk. There is no need to tell your pal.”
“There is every need,” he replied. Voice louder than usual, eyes refusing to hide his anger. “That is the problem with you women, it’s fine when you keep secrets. To hell with the poor man who has no idea what’s going on.”
“Chib took advantage of her. He got her drunk and forced his lips on hers.”
“What was she doing with him? Did he force her to go with him?”
“She wasn’t thinking. She is devastated. The way your friend treated her was horrible.”
“You mean she is devastated she is not marrying into money anymore?” He sniggered. “Obi called her what she is, full stop. Pretender. Oniranu.”
“What about you? Has anyone called you what you are?” She would have jumped out of his car if the child lock was not on. “I need to get out of here. Away from you.”
“That wasn’t what you were saying last night when your legs were wrapped around me.”
He was smirking. Leering. Staring at her the way men she followed home during her drunken days smirked at her. She had decided some time ago not to give in to her desires anymore. Especially not with a man that she couldn’t scrub off and watch flow into the plug hole with her morning shower.
For her, last night wasn’t simply because he knew how to please her. It was because she wanted to be free from men like him. Men like her father. So that she would be able to feed her children without waiting for these men in future.
“We both know you can’t get enough of me, Habibat.”
She rolled her eyes. “You think I slept with you because you are so gorgeous? Think again.”
“I don’t have to think again. I know you have an agenda. Like your friend.”
“Issy does not have an agenda. She practically raised her sister. Every penny Lohor paid for her education came from Issy. Even Obinna’s mother and daughter, Issy spent half of her wages on them when she was working in that house…”
“Like a girl with a proper agenda.”
“Seriously, stop it…”
“It is called clever prostitution. Or how come she didn’t go for any of her other patients’ sons? Were they not rich enough? What about Chibuzor? Or his lack of income did not make him attractive enough?”
Her brother often made statements like this too. Jumping and waving his hands about. Olu believed what their father told her brothers. That girls would fight each other for the affection of boys like them.
Olu told her of a girl with big glasses that followed him around at school. Her mother operated a buka and two market stalls to send her to the school. And because everyone else came from homes where they employed women like this girl’s mother, no one wanted to be seen with her.
Olu was keen to be her friend. He did not care that his snobbish friends with their American and London accents asked what he was doing with her. She was his friend. Helping him with his assignments, sneaking into the boys’ dormitory and bringing delicious meals that could not have come from the school’s kitchen. Until the day his father visited him in school and Olu introduced the girl as the daughter of the local buka owner. He had called her his sweet classmate also. Perhaps it was because their father did not return the girl’s greetings or because he mentioned Sewa, the governor’s daughter, Olu was seeing, but the girl never sneaked into his room again.
Biba thought of reminding Idriss of the bond between his friend and hers. He had noticed it too and teased Obinna about it the day the men were at the apartment. But he was speaking on his phone, demanding to see someone later on.
“Better bring the gear, I have the money.” He ended the call and brightened his face with a smile for her.
“Id, can I ask you something?”
She hesitated even though it made sense. Yesterday, he did not drink much. Yet he had acted as if he had drunk too much. “When you say gear, do you mean drugs?”
He unlocked the car. “Go and join your friends.”
“You don’t need that rubbish. It will mess with your head.”
“None of your business, young woman.”
“Should I be worried?”
“It’s fine. I’m an adult. Just wait for my text. I need to see you before you go back. Not here, sha.”
“No way,” she almost laughed. “Nothing is happening between us ever again.”
“It is over when I say so.” His voice sounded chillingly cold and he gazed into her eyes to make sure she understood what he didn’t say.
She stared at him because she could not think of anything to say. Yesterday, he swore he would give her everything. Today, it was unexpected behaviour.
“We are good together,” he said after a while. His voice had softened considerably. “This can work. I will give you the job I promised you at Aspire. You can live for free in any of my properties. Promise me you will think about it.”
She nodded and climbed out of the car. She would have thought about it even if she had not promised.
It took a while for her to change for bed and by the time she went to check on Isio in Kanyin’s room, Isio was asleep on the bed. Kanyin was reading from a textbook beside her, she placed it down on top of a journal when she saw her.
“What took you so long? I have uni work, you know.”
“Sorry. What did she say happened?”
Kanyin gestured for her to follow her. They went inside the bathroom. Once in there, Kanyin started to explain what sense she made of Isio’s drunken ramblings. Of how Isio, eyes half-closed told her she did not expect Chib to try to kiss her. She had gone for drinks with him because he was feeling down about his situation with his family.
“She was mumbling. Saying Chib said he has no one in this world. What do you think that means?” Kanyin asked.
Perched on the edge of the bathtub, Biba understood. During one of his marathon drinking nights, he told her he had heard something years ago that suggested his father did not father him. As his eyes were red and his speech barely coherent, she was not sure what to make of that information then.
“He is probably high on dope as usual. Or maybe he is telling the truth.”
“I don’t really care,” Kanyin checked her hair in the mirror. It had pink and purple rims. Same kind of pink and purple of the furniture and fittings in her room and bathroom. “I don’t want him messing things up for Issy and Jay.”
“He won’t tell his brother what he did. It’s only your dad we have to worry about.”
“I know. I have to beg that stubborn father of mine not to blab.”
She imagined Idriss frowning. His lips pressed together.
“Why are you smiling?”
“You were smiling, Bibby. Does that mean you are ready to tell us who put that baby in your belly?”
Biba rose and started to go back into the bedroom. She did not stop. Not even when she heard her friend calling her name softly. She would not think of how it happened today.
“It was a question. Do we not deserve to know?” Kanyin followed her.
“How are you going to feed it if the dad is not in the picture?”
“I’m going to borrow some of that photoshoot money that Aspire paid Issy. You know… the shoot that never happened because of all the craziness of last year. I will pay it back when I start working.”
“That money is not for you to spend.” Kanyin held her hand and turned her around gently. “It doesn’t belong to her, either.” She glanced at Isio who was mumbling and turning in bed. “She already said she is going to return the money, the shares and her ring to Jay. It is the right thing to do …”
“She can do whatever she wants.” She had not meant to sound harsh. It had become even more difficult for her to be kind to people since Stan told her, he couldn’t have fathered her baby.
“We will help you. The baby will not suffer.”
“No. My baby will not suffer.”
“Austin has a good job. I have already told him we will pay for the pram and baby cot. I know you two don’t get on…”
“Tell your hubs not to worry. I’m good.”
Picturing Austin’s condescending face handling her a second-hand pram and carry cot for the baby pushed her to hurry out of the room. Her goodnight greetings were short.
She was striding along the corridor when she felt strong arms grab her. His shoes pounded the floor as he led her into a room with patterned curtains and book aisles like a traditional English study. He picked her up and placed her on the large, mahogany table in the centre of the room, swearing when he attempted to kiss her and she turned away.
“You are killing me.”
Idriss’ voice was gruff as he fondled her breasts and kissed her neck. She wondered if she would ever get to see the man he was before his wife’s diagnosis. She let him kiss her in the dark room before pushing her hands between them.
“Id, we can’t. Think of your wife.”
He grunted. When he held on to her, leaning on her and the desk, she realised it wasn’t her refusal to let him touch her that caused him to grunt.
“What’s wrong, Akinwale? You look so beat.”
It felt ironic. In the stylish buba and agbada he had changed into, he appeared powerful. Physically strong, so that her hands on him appeared like that of a small child’s.
“My wife is not doing well,” he said. “The treatment those doctors suggested is not suitable for her. She cried on the phone when we spoke.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I can’t even tell Kanyinsola. In fact, she doesn’t want me to do anything.”
“You can do something,” she tilted his chin up. “You can be there for Anu. Put her first. Even though you are in pain, it is worse for her. Go and be there for her. Stop running away.”
“I don’t do hospitals.”
“Babies, yeah. Casual visits, yeah. Not when my wifey is crumbling like this.”
“I think you should go and see her.”
“I think you should let me spread you flat like butter.”
“Id…” She protested.
“Fine. Keep your legs closed. I will go and see my Manchester guys. Tell my daughter, I will be back tomorrow.”
Isio read Chib’s apology via instant messaging a few times. Even though she did not want to read about how much he would always love her or how he should not have kissed her. But she was sat on her own. At the corner table of the hospital’s canteen and she was tired of seeing her colleagues and hearing their questions. How are you? Do you feel lucky to be alive? What happened with the boyfriend?
Her phone beeped again. I love you so much. Please talk to me. I didn’t even know you were back in town. Why are you avoiding me?
She abandoned her smoothie to respond to him.
Leave me alone, Chib. You can’t claim you love me just like that. After one kiss. I don’t even believe you know what love is.
I know what I feel.
You don’t love me. Stop saying it.
I do. I love you. I changed for you. I’m doing this shitty job for you. Gurl. I need you.
Please, stop this.
I will come to your crib tonight. If you don’t let me in, I will be back tomorrow and the day after. You need to tell me our kiss didn’t mean a thing. I don’t believe the texts you sent me.
Okay, now you are acting like a stalker. Please leave me alone. I’m not over your brother yet and even if I was, I wouldn’t consider you.
You don’t understand. I have done big things to get you. I put everything on the line in December. I didn’t even fucking care my bro could disown me.
The smoothie tasted sour when she returned to it. Reminding her of the awful batches of smoothie drinks Biba made at home last month. Strawberries with unripe bananas and leafy spinach.
She did not want to ask Chib what he meant and yet she couldn’t continue with the smoothie. She thought of December and how her losses overwhelmed her and typed swiftly. It angered her that she had believed Annabel, the poor girl, was involved.
Moments after she asked what he did in December, her fingers tapped on the table to while away time. Unable to bear the wait, she grabbed her phone. This time she was clearer. Even though, asking this drained her, she did not apologise.
You know about the whole texting thing, don’t you? You know how Kelly framed me?
The canteen was almost empty of people before her phone beeped. Her break was nearly over and she had started to hope he would respond before she had to go back on the ward. She did not want to return to the ward feeling like this. Feeling as though someone she trusted led her to a busy road, tied her up and left her there.
Strangely, it was the car accident and what they shared that led to her trusting him again. She remembered the fright she saw in his eyes as the car started to go down and even after she was told Obinna searched the length of the water for her, she had believed Chib tried too.
Isio bit her lower lip and drew her phone nearer.
You have to understand, I had no real hand in it. It was all Kelly’s idea. All I did was get hold of your phone and use it to send texts to my phone. And a few from mine to yours. She gave me some cash but I did not even do it for that. I did it for love. My brother is not right for you, gurl. All he wants is someone to be in his bed and give him kids. Someone he can treat anyhow. The way he used to beat Kelly and make her cry. That’s why she lost their baby.
His excuses kept coming. I did it for you.
Apologies too. I love you. Please forgive me. I didn’t think you would get hurt.
There was a time she would have shouted him down. A time she would have typed furiously, barely looking at the words because she thought Obinna could never get that angry. But she had seen him become enraged once before. Shouting. Refusing to listen to her. The awful name calling.
Leave me alone, she felt like ringing him up and ranting. But she needed to conserve herself for quite a lot this week. Seeing her mother and her half-sisters. Turning down Obinna’s offer of what he called a trip of a lifetime. Attending a postgraduate advice event at the University of East London and her job interview on Thursday.
Chib, move on with your life. Hating on your brother will not get you anywhere in life. If he abused Kelly, why the hell is she back for him? Why the hell are you even helping her? I can ask you so much more but I don’t care. I’m done with your family. I have a senior nurse interview soon and my life can only get better from then on. Move on! There was nothing between us. You don’t call planting your lips on a drunk girl’s face, something special!
Isio did not dash out when her shift finished. She helped with the stock inventory and asked questions about the new feed pump machines that arrived last week. Aggie, one of the ward managers answered all her questions. She was exchanging phone numbers with her at the end of it all. A day was also set aside for coffee and cake.
“Operation get me a better job,” Isio muttered when she left the ward.
The smile that had started to spread round her face disappeared when she saw a familiar car parked close to the bus shelter.
Obinna was waiting beside it.