*** *** ***
Obinna ended his call after she whispered his mother needed him. She had gone to get his mother’s flavoured water, insulin injection and honey jar from the fridge. He said goodnight to their last lot of guests: Idriss and family, a Scottish man and Miles who came on his own. Then he joined her on the way upstairs.
Whilst Isio fed his mother a spoon of honey, Obinna fired questions her way. He didn’t let her answer. He sat on the bed next to his mother and peeled off her wig. Her blouse and face were drenched in sweat. She was telling her son her discovery in Igbo. Chibuzor’s name, Biba’s and a phrase with Chineke in it told her as much. Tufiakwa followed twice.
“Mama, calm down.” Obinna held one of her hands in his. “Please.”
“I’m calm my son.” She was moving her head from side to side, sighing and breathing as if she had lost control of her body.
“I will call Ifeanyi. He is the one that was trying to track down the girl. I’m sure he will know if this is the same girl.”
“No need to call Ifeanyichukwu. I already know it. I know it in my heart.”
“That girl looks exactly like Funmi.”
“I heard you.”
“Just call your sister. Tell her to come and see me, I want to start saying goodbye.”
Isio rubbed the back of Mrs Okadigbo’s upper arm where she had pushed the insulin injection in. She unzipped her blouse slightly and glanced at her son to find him looking at her. “The injection will kick in soon.”
“Thank you,” he kissed his mother’s hand he had in his without taking his eyes off Isio. “Please stay with Annabel. I don’t want her to hear about any of this.”
She opened the window to let in cool air and as she left for the living room she wondered if he asked her to leave because he couldn’t trust her anymore.
Accepting what Mrs Okadigbo said was impossible. Her head felt like there was something in there spinning around. What would the revelation do to Biba?
She let what she knew guide her. Biba’s mother was a brilliant school prefect that fell in love with a notorious polygamist. This was all she knew about the woman. All, she was told by her daughter. She clung to this information tightly, fleshed it out to make it whole. Brilliant school prefects did not turn out to as adulterers.
Annabel was on the couch. Cuddled up in her heavily detailed, glittery lilac dress. Ears plugged to her new Beats headphones, a present from her dad to placate her for missing her first day at secondary school.
Her eyelids were tightly shut, a small frown fixed on her face. The small frown she saw on Obinna’s face once. She had walked in to get her phone from the guest living room. And in that moment, frozen to the spot, she nearly decided he wasn’t asleep. But calling out his name did not wake him.
Chib came back whilst she was tidying up. Unsteady and apologetic. He dropped the can of drink he took out of the fridge and laughed.
“Aah, still mad at me?” He picked up the can and staggered towards her. “I was trying to rinse your bestie off me. She was like an annoying fly following me about. The chick was asking about my blood group. Trying to form buddy with my mum.”
“Chib, forget about all of that.” She felt sorry for him as he tried and failed to open the can. “You should go up to your mum. Your brother is waiting.”
“So, he can shout at me?”
“His problems are just about to start.” He placed the can on the table. “Now that Kelly has wormed herself into Bell’s life.”
“Kelly? Annabel’s mother?”
She would never forget that name. It was the name of the woman that called Obinna the night he asked her to finish early. Curiosity drove her to ask Annabel who Kelly was.
Obinna’s face and voice when he picked up the phone should have informed her as much. It came to her now, the veiled affection in that voice and the way he took the phone up to his room.
“What does she want?” Anger was not a regular feeling she felt. Today, it was strong. She promised herself she was angry for Annabel’s sake. After all, Kelly did abandon Annabel so as to move in with the man her father forbade her from marrying.
“She wants him back,” Chib smirked. “I bet he wants her too.”
“He would. That babe really got him for real. She got him proposing on their third date.” He started to walk towards the door. “And if her sex appeal and beauty has stopped working, she will get her father involved.” He rolled his eyes and shook his head when she gawped at him. “Her father is Chief Ibe. My brother’s mentor. The one that helped him excel in the business world. Get with the programme, girl. It’s like you know nothing around here.”
He went upstairs and she found herself unable to continue tidying the kitchen. Soon, she heard voices upstairs. Obinna’s. The kind of tone he often used with his daughter. His brother’s loud one followed. Then derisive laughter.
What followed was a squeaky no. One that graduated from audible to loud in seconds. She followed the voices to the landing and heard Obinna calling out for her.
Chib was a pale form of folded limbs and parts on the floor. He didn’t respond to his mother, who touched his head and drew him closer, her eyes watering like his.
“You will have to take it easy my son. Your life is not over. Mba.”
Obinna had his phone in his hand. “We don’t know for sure. You heard Ifeanyi, Mama.”
Mrs Okadigbo did not look up. She kept touching Chib’s head as if it would make things better. “I heard him tell you the girl now lives in London. What more proof do you need?”
“It doesn’t mean it is definitely her.”
“The girl looks like Funmi Lawal. She is from the same place as her.”
“DNA test can clear up this confusion.” He breathed and came towards Isio. “Help me question this girl. Can you get your phone? There are key things my brother found out about her.”
Outside of the room, she paused. Although at times Biba’s actions were unkind, she liked to be supportive of her friends. There were times when fresh out of university, when most of Isio’s income went towards her sister’s education. They would share Biba’s food delivery. Her friend even helped her with her rent once.
“I don’t want to ask her.” She turned back to Obinna. “She won’t be able to get over it.”
“No. Don’t ask her directly. Just ask her if she knows Funmi Lawal. That my mother and her knew each other.”
In his room, he paced the rugged floor whilst she took her phone off the charger and put it on speaker. He had opened the window and was poised with his e-cig in his hand by the time Biba answered with a joyful hi.
Isio wished she would let her speak. She wished she didn’t start talking about Kanyin and Austin and how Chibuzor and her could become just like them.
“I need to ask you something,” Isio interrupted. “Mummy wants to know if you know someone she knew a long time back.”
“Really? Mummy wants to know more about me?”
She wanted to tell her not to talk about Chibuzor or call his mother mummy. But Obinna looked impatient.
“Do you know a woman called Funmi Lawal?” She asked and covered her mouth when she heard a piercing yes.
“This world is such a small world. How did they meet? So Chib and I were literarily destined to be?”
Obinna moved his head slightly and she took this to mean he wanted her to ask another question.
“Who was she to you Biba?”
“Do you not listen to anything I say at all, babe? I told you about my dear Mummy many times.”
“I always talk about her. I took you to her house.”
“Duh. Who else am I talking about? I don’t call my father’s fuck buddy mum, do I? You know she only took me in for his sake. My aunty is the one I give a hoot about.”
“I will tell Mummy.” Isio said quickly and ended the call. She could not have said anything else to her friend. Her throat had started to tighten up. Happy for Chibuzor. But the people she was delighted for were Biba, his mother and his brother who now looked like he would scoop her off the floor in a second. “You heard that?”
“I did. I did, Issy.”
“I didn’t know her aunty was called Funmi. I could have helped reassure Mummy.” Isio met Biba’s aunt and cousin last year. She had been preoccupied that day staring at the graceful woman and at her breath-taking house and colourful cars. “I should have known.”
“It’s fine.” He patted her on the shoulder. “You did well. Let me go and give them the good news.”
Chib did pick her up and hug her when he saw her. He took over the tidying of the kitchen from her. He told her, he would never drink again and when he said drinking made him act irresponsibly, she knew he was trying to apologise.
“Hey, you two.” Obinna appeared in the doorway whilst his brother was still talking. “I’m going to carry my daughter to her room. Can you sleep in her room, Issy?”
She nodded. “Yes, Jay. Whatever you want.”
“I’m tired. I need my bed tonight. Please leave your timesheets on the table. I will sign them in the morning. Don’t forget to tell the nurse taking over from you in the morning how my mother was tonight.”
She had started to peel off the shiny table cloth off the dining table even before he walked off. Her heart thumped loudly. He didn’t say goodnight on his way up. He was saying something in Igbo to his half-asleep daughter. Her limbs encircled him perfectly. He held on to her firmly, giving the impression that no one in this world could matter to him the way his daughter did.
“Let me talk to him,” Chib said. “It’s my fault.”
“You don’t understand. The man is hooked. He doesn’t get jealous over women. He doesn’t even do women.” He pulled his phone out of his snug jean’s pocket, checked it and grinned. “Give me one hour. Or two. Nah, strike that, give me the whole night. Nadia wants to talk. Got to run.”
“Sounds important,” she didn’t try to hide the sarcasm in her tone.
“It is, babe.” He had started to unbutton his white shirt as he walked. “You can take my bed. You better change the sheets for your own good. Bibs and I did things you don’t wanna know about on it when you were all down here.”
“Too much information. Are you going to call her tonight?”
“That whole sister scare has spoilt it for me.” His face fell. “Bibs and I are so done.”
“Don’t use this as an excuse to break up with her. She doesn’t deserve that.”
“I can’t hit it again. Ever. Blame it on my pops who liked to spray every bush. Not on me. For the first time in my life, I’m innocent.” He sang a vaguely familiar song on his way out.
Isio opened her eyes to Annabel standing in front of her. The girl was dressed in her school uniform. Her fingers held a piece of toast covered in jam.
“Sorry, I slept in your room.”
The blinds had been rolled to the sides letting the sun shine in through the translucent window. It felt good waking up to a glorious weather.
It did not bother her that Obinna was yet to sort out the spare room for her and that it was still clogged with new furniture and boxes of Aspire newsletters and brochures.
Kanyin had joked that Obinna preferred her having to use his room when she complained to her yesterday. “He wants to wander in one of these days.” Her eyes had twinkled with excitement the same way it often did whenever they spoke of her husband.
“Do you fancy making it up to me,” Annabel asked. “You did take over half of my room with your pull-up bed.” She bent and tapped the end of the bed.
Annabel sat on the bed and took a bite of her toast. The girl barely ate anything other than toasts and fruits these days. Occasionally she sat down to garri or pounded yam to appease her grandmother.
“I’m going home today, Annie. There is a nurse called Sadie coming in later. I deserve a break.”
“Please. I just need you to come to my school. I want you to introduce me to Toni. She has her own friends but I need to befriend her to join the coding and math’s club. Daddy has already said you can come with us in the car.”
“Is that all?”
“Did I tell you there is no one as beautiful as you?”
“Of course, I will. Don’t bribe me, young woman.”
Toni was actually named Toyin by her father, a paediatrician on the ward Isio worked on. Her father attended to patients with eagerness. It was the type of eagerness he showed anytime Isio wanted something that she didn’t like.
It wasn’t the forceful type. But like that of the teacher in her secondary school who told her she looked half-Itsekiri.
When his wife picked him up one day at work and they offered her a lift to Stratford, she accepted.
Their daughter, Toyin, a friendly girl was sat at the back. She told her of her future plans to be an entrepreneur. This, she remembered when she followed Annabel to school on her first day and saw Toyin. As Obinna was away and her grandmother was too ill, she had gone with the girl. Toyin was pleasant to her. She said a quick hi to Annabel too. So, Isio was surprised to learn friendship had not blossomed between the two.
Obinna was quiet during the drive to the school. He greeted Doctor Abebi, Toyin’s father when Isio introduced them. And she was pleased that whilst she chatted with Annabel and Toyin, he and Doctor Abebi talked about Nigerian politics and the economy.
She hugged the girls when it was time to go. He was quiet in the car. Even when he drove down Gravesend Road, indicating he was taking her home, not the train station.
“You didn’t have to introduce me as a business baron,” he said after a long while.
“I did it for your daughter.” She was tired of his mood.
“You’ve lost me.”
“Toyin wants to be a business person like you. Toyin also knows everyone in that school. She went to the same primary school with most of the brilliant girls. Annie needs her. Knowing Annie’s father is big in the business world will help their friendship.”
“I’m big?” He smiled.
“You know what I mean.” She gulped in hair and exhaled slowly. Breathing slow had always helped her when she felt nervous. When her body felt heavy. Solid. As if it had been covered in glue. “So… Jay, I know you are angry with me. I don’t know why though.”
“I know about you and my little bro.”
“I don’t understand.” She let the air in and out slowly. “Jay?.”
“I know you are sleeping with each other or you did it as a one off. Whatever! I don’t care.” He hooted his horn and took over from the Nissan Micra driver ahead of them. “Stupid driver!”
“Sleeping with each other? I haven’t slept with anyone.”
“I know what Chibuzor said!”
“What exactly did he say because I know I haven’t done anything.”
“He said I shouldn’t have gone after you.” He spoke calmly now, his voice as usual, heavy-sounding. “He called you his babe…”
“No, I’m not his babe. I promise you. I don’t even get on well with him.”
He shrugged, eyes on the road, chin jutting out. In the same way, it was yesterday when he held his beer bottle as if he was about to smash Chib’s head with it.
“Why would I go after Chib?”
“When you are drooling over me? I didn’t think so too.”
She slapped his hand. It was a light-hearted act that made her freeze as soon as he glanced at her again. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you.”
“That’s what I’m going to say when I do my own back.”
“I so will. Not on your hand. You can pick a body part.”
The moment was interrupted by her phone. She took it out of her bag and saw that Biba had sent her a long message.
I’m getting out of here. I need to clear my head. Please tell Chibuzor that I will always love him. I understand all he said and I know we need to move on from how we feel for each other. I know it hurts him but this is it.
Love you loads, babe. Even though I know I don’t deserve you.
Continue to be the kind heart you are.
“What’s up sweetie?” Obinna asked.
She was about to read the message again. It had read like someone else had sent her the message. Biba liked short, direct messages. Not this long, heartfelt one.
“Biba has just messaged me, saying she is going away. She is all like, I love you.”
“That’s not my friend. She is not the type.”
“She is going away. I guess my brother has broken her heart. Most people get like that when their heart has been broken.”
She put her phone back in her bag and sighed. “Why is your brother like this?”
“I don’t really know. I wonder sometimes if it is because he was at home when it all kicked off between our parents.”
“Kicked off? They were fighting?”
“My dad got worse. As if cheating wasn’t enough.” He waited a while as if he wasn’t sure if to tell her what he wanted to tell her. “My mother was planning to leave and he just turned into a brute. I was in Port Harcourt then. Emeka in England. Ifeanyi in Lagos and Lota serving. I came home one day to find my mother’s face swollen. Chibuzor was at home during this time.”
“Your father beat Mummy?” She asked.
“He never did it again. He wouldn’t dare. I made sure of that.”
His early countenance came back. With it, the silence. It seemed as if he was concentrating on the road ahead, the vast motorway. But she had gotten to know him. He loved his mother with a rare passion. Talking about what happened had left him sullen, perhaps.
“Jay. Sorry I made you talk about it.”
“No, Issy. It’s fine.” He took one of her hands in his and squeezed it. “I like talking to you.”
She could have said something else. But he was holding her hand in his. He had let go of it before anything logical came to her mind
I have things on my mind, sweetie.”
“You don’t give up at all, do you?” His face lit up with a genuine smile. “I’m dreading how many missed calls I have already,” he said.
She had heard his phone ringing before they went on the motorway. She had assumed it was his father ringing him and he didn’t want to speak to him just yet. At the house, his mother shouted after him to ring his father. Obinna had ignored her. His face wore a determined frown that she had noticed.
“You can’t avoid your father.” She said now. “You can’t avoid the issue too.”
She was talking about Biba’s cousin and although he didn’t say anything, she knew he had thought about it too. The possibility of Biba’s cousin being his sister.
The few things she remembered about Biba’s aunt, she told his mother this morning. The woman kept her maiden name after marriage. And when her marriage ended barely a year after it begun, it had been easy to shrug it off like a piece of clothing.
“It is someone else I’m trying to avoid.” Obinna sighed. “He is like a father to me. Normally I can’t say no to him.”
“What does he want? This father-like person.”
“He wants me to let his daughter come over for Annabel.” His grip tightened around the steering wheel. “He said my girl needs her mother. The thing is, Kelly is not exactly the good mother type.”
“So, you think she is not over you?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I think you should show her you have moved on. It’s not helping her that you are still available. Maybe you are too…irresistible.”
“Irresistible?” He raised a brow and laughed.
His phone rang when they arrived in front of her building. This time, he was pleased to speak to whoever it was.
She waited for him to finish on the phone. Fiddled with her skirt’s belt whilst he talked.
“My meeting has been moved.” He said as he tapped the screen of his phone to end the call. “We were supposed to be finalising the arrangement for the promotional shoot.”
“What are you going to do now? Go home?”
“I was hoping I could go up with you. We could spend the day together.”
She stared at him as if she hadn’t heard him correctly.
“You did say I need to move on, didn’t you?” He grinned as he undid his seat belt. “So, how about it? Can I come with you?”