*** *** ***
Biba had gone out by the time they woke up. When they heard voices downstairs, Isio and Kanyin piled at the top. The first-floor balcony’s thick railings made it easy to stay up there unnoticed. Another grand feature of the house, it opened into metallic spiral stairs. Spiral stairs that were curved like stacked up rings.
Damian and Biba were hugging in the living room whilst their son chased his toy car about. The car veered underneath the bottom of the stairs. Pete looked up, saw Isio and squealed. She met him at the bottom of the stairs, picked him up and embraced him.
“Issy! I miss you.”
“I have missed you too.”
Pete kissed her cheek. His cheeks were flushed red from running around. He looked more like his South African, Dutch descended father this morning. His affectionate, lively personality, he inherited from his father too. People that knew Biba often doubted she gave birth to him.
“Did you and Daddy take your mummy out, Peaches?”
“Not Peaches anymore.”
Damian came over. “He doesn’t want to be called Peaches anymore. There is a girl at school that says Peaches is girly.”
Isio tried not to laugh as she passed the boy to his father. Biba looked lost in multiple layers that seemed to weigh her down. Her face creased in a smile when she noticed Isio looking at her. “Did you three have fun whilst out?”
“We took Bibby out for some fresh air,” Damian said. “To the Park. Pete is not happy, though.”
“No ice cream.” Pete moaned.
“We can get ice cream tomorrow afternoon when Mummy comes over.”
“Mummy, come today.”
Pete could beg clothes off a beggar. Even at four years old, he knew he had to be quite crafty to get his mother’s attention.
Days after his birth, his mother did not want to part with him. She struggled to remember the basics about baby bibs and bottle teats. But she loved him. After telling Damian she couldn’t disobey her father and be with him, she realised she couldn’t take his child away from him.
After weaning Pete off breast milk, she left him with Damian and his parents. Isio would never forget the sadness in her voice when she told her. She had a bottle of Prosecco in her hand that night and as she drank from it, she murmured about having had to learn not to love her son too much.
“I don’t know, Damian.” Biba said. “I have to wait for Aunty. She has gone to a friend’s wedding with Meimu. I will call you when I can come over.”
“Call me, then. We will get going.” Damian ruffled up his son’s curly hair and waved at Kanyin in the middle of the stairs. “Nice seeing you again. Thanks for looking after Bibby.”
“She is stubborn,” Kanyin said. “But I don’t take no for an answer.”
“That’s the spirit.” He stopped beside Biba and lowered Pete so she could kiss his cheek. “Bibby is stubborn. That’s why we love her.”
Biba’s quietness lasted for a while. She barely said goodbye as Damian clambered into the car after Isio strapped Pete into his car seat. Kanyin’s subtle questions about the future did not lead anywhere. She refused the indomie, plantain and sliced, boiled eggs made.
Kanyin seemed to become frustrated after ringing her father to pick her and Isio up. She followed her, took the laundry basket she had in her hands and placed it on the floor.
“You have to talk to us, Bibs. You can’t just pretend you are not pregnant.”
“It’s my life.”
“How did this even happen?”
“I did it with Chib. How do you think babies are made?”
“You didn’t protect yourself. It’s a pretty big deal when you have already been caught once. You have a son you had aged nineteen. I don’t get how you let him near you without condoms. Especially when it’s with a pig like Chib. You don’t know where he has been.”
“The truth is, it was as if I was under his spell. At first I just wanted to find a Nigerian man that my father would like.” She sighed and folded her arms. “Then I started to catch feelings. I slept with him even at the beginning when he started chasing Issy. He said he doesn’t do condoms and I didn’t question him. I didn’t even slap him when he asked if I could do it with him and his friend.”
“Eew. That’s so wrong. Please tell me you didn’t do it.”
“Of course. I didn’t do it! Are you crazy? Why would I?” She shook her head from side to side like someone who couldn’t believe something. “I have always been careful. I swore never to get pregnant again. Ask Issy.”
Isio nodded and led her friend to the bed. “It’s okay. We can handle this.”
“You can handle it? How are you going to help me decide? You, who doesn’t even have any experience with men.”
Isio hoped Kanyin did not hear what was said but from the way her eyebrows creased she could tell she had. “This is not about me. I know we don’t know how you are feeling right now…”
“You are our friend,” Kanyin interrupted. She strode over to the bed and knelt beside them. “Let’s give you some days to decide. Then whatever your decision is, we will be there for you.” She winked. “Now let’s start schooling our innocent girl here o. We need to tell her what to expect with Jay tonight. We don’t want her to see big something and faint.”
“Yes, make fun of Issy time.” She whipped out her phone and pretended to ignore her friends. She rolled her eyes now and again. She wasn’t embarrassed by their teasing but comforted by how the frown on Biba’s face had transformed into a softer countenance.
Kanyin’s father took them with him to Aspire’s London office on their way home. “There are some paper work you need to sign for the photoshoot you agreed to do for us,” he said to Isio.
The Aspire offices were situated on the second and third floor of a skyscraper, a magnificent building in the middle of Stratford. With big, glass curtain walls, the building peaked out amongst the other buildings in its shimmering blue.
The offices were minimally furnished and mostly empty. Idriss explained to Isio that only their estate agencies were open to customers six days of the week including Saturdays. And their London office catered to the corporate side of their business and served also as the main office for Aspire Property Development.
He showed Isio and Kanyin into a vast office with soft furnishings. A red lounger in the room stuck out amidst dark coloured fixtures and furniture.
“I share my office with Obinna,” Idriss said. “Blame him for the décor.”
“I can’t wait to see these pictures,” Kanyin tapped Isio’s hand whilst her father spoke to someone on the phone. “Yours and Jay’s better be the best, after all nobody is paying me to do the shoot with my hubby.”
“You have started again. Is your hubby not going to thank you when you get home?” She whispered her question so Idriss would not hear them.
“Is Jay not going to thank you after the photoshoot?” She winked and reached for one of her hands. “It’s a shame I’m going to see Austin tonight. I would have loved to see your face when he picks you up.”
“You are going to see Austin again?”
“My wife is back home in Ribble,” Idriss had put the phone receiver down. His eyes seemed to twinkle when he mentioned my wife. “I’m driving down to see her. And your friend wants to come on the ride because she doesn’t like driving on her own.”
“I miss my hubby, Daddy. Shebi, it was you and your wife and your cronies that sent him to Ribble Greaves.”
“Executive decision for the company, Ireti mi.” He glanced at Isio. “What are you going to do tonight with Obinna being in Belfast.”
“He is in Belfast?” When she checked her phone, there had been a message on there about them having a romantic meal tonight. Nothing about him going to Belfast.
“He had to go.” He was studying her, watching her like an observer would their subject. “He should be back by tomorrow or Monday.”
The door opened and Ekong came in with a file. He greeted the girls, adding, it’s nice to see you, to Isio’s greeting.
“You work here?” She asked as he placed the file in front of her.
“Yes. I do. That’s how I met Austin.” He pointed at the bottom of the first sheet of paper. “If you can sign the first page please, I have made copies for you to keep.”
“I will just skim read.”
“I will wait, babe. Anything for you.”
Kanyin was taking bottles of coke out of the fridge. Her father had left the room and this seemed to encourage Ekong’s flirting.
“Your hair is beautiful. Very beautiful. You are lucky, you don’t have to relax it.”
“Thanks, Ekong.” She didn’t think it was necessary to correct him.
“Can you leave your phone number here please?” He placed a plain sheet of paper beside the file. “So that we can contact you about the shoot and things like that.”
Even before he had gathered up the content of the file and left the room, she realised that she shouldn’t have given out her phone number. Kanyin’s pursed lips confirmed this.
“I should have given him my email.”
“Yes, Issy. My stepmum said Obinna gets jealous easily. Be careful, sha.”
“What exactly did your stepmum say?”
“She said there was this woman in their corporate world that was interested in him. They planned to go for drinks. Then your oko saw a man picking up this woman from the conference they were both attending and cancelled the date.”
“Just like that?”
“Yours will not be like that. Just don’t give him reasons to doubt you.”
Isio’s sleep was interrupted every half hour or so. The terror that plagued her sleep and nights after they left Ughelli resumed as if it hadn’t ceased for a while. This was why she enjoyed the company of others. The peace that came with knowing there were others about. That her aunt would not wake her from sleep with a cane or koboko.
When her eyes peeled open shortly after midnight, she realised it was her phone that woke her up this time. She picked it up and saw Obinna had been in touch. She had expected an apologetic message about not being able to make their date much earlier in the day.
Get dressed, let’s do this. I’m waiting on the pent floor sweetie, the short text read.
She chose a beautiful white dress that fell around her. Wanting to appear presentable but not elegant, she decided on stud earrings. The plaits in her hair had been taken out so that her curls were like twists on her head.
Her knees wobbled on the way to the lift. She wondered if she should have worn a dress that covered her hands and if she should have straightened her hair. Seeing him waiting in front of the pent floor apartment did not dissolve the solid dread that took hold of her. He was dressed smartly in a pale, fawn shirt and khaki pants.
“Sweetheart, I’m sorry I got here late.” He kissed her lips tenderly and then stood back to look at her. “You are beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. I don’t think I’m hungry for food anymore.”
“You and flattery.”
“I don’t think you know what you do to me. I had to get back to be with you.” He kissed her lips and neck, pulled her to himself and groaned.
She was completely with him in that moment until she heard voices in the apartment. “Is someone here?”
“Yes. I had to get people to wait on you. To treat you like the queen you are. My queen.”
She stopped at the door despite his hand leading her. The apartment was set up for an intimate dinner. Chandelier dimly lit. Blinds pulled to the sides of the window to reveal the stunning view around them.
“Jay, what’s going on?”
Two men were cooking in the kitchen in chef’s coats and white, skull hats. A man and woman in black pants and top pulled out the chairs around a small table in the middle of the room. Obinna led her to the table and whilst the woman brought wine glasses to the table, the man brought a bottle of Champagne.
“Obinna, what’s all this?” She waited for the woman and man serving them to step back before asking again.
“I wanted to spend time with you. And I knew restaurants around here would be shut by the time I got back. So, I brought one to you.”
“You didn’t have to do all these.”
“I will do anything for you, my love.” He uncorked the Champagne bottle and filled her wine glass.
“Not too much.”
“What’s up? Don’t you trust me?”
“I trust you.”
“Good. Drink up, so I can tell them to bring our starter over.”
The chefs, waiter and waitress had cleared up by the time they finished their dessert. It was a gooey, vanilla cheesecake that she only ate a spoon of. The way he gazed at her, the contact of his hands and feel of his lips against her forehead when he pressed his lips to her head filled her stomach with air.
When he guided her to the terrace balcony after the chefs and waiters’ departure, she expected him to kiss her. He didn’t. He held her to keep her warm and told her about his interest in her future. He wanted her to consider setting up a nursing agency. Something tangible for the future.
“I actually wanted to be a doctor a long time ago. But my responsibilities stopped my dreams,” she said.
“It is not too late.”
“You are only in your early twenties. You can still do it. I will sponsor you, Issy.”
“I want to have all my children by the time I’m thirty. I can’t be studying at night and running after two little rascals in the morning.”
“Our children won’t be rascals.” His voice was deep and tender at the same time. “If they are, I will get two full time nannies. No expenses spared. Anything for our children.” He turned her around and kissed her. Tenderly at first. Then he took her lips as if he could never let go. He tasted of champagne and although the mild scent of his aftershave caressed her senses, she loved the feelings he kick-started in her.
She felt herself start to veer off the edge when his head lowered to her chest. His lips were on one of her breasts, his hands holding her waist firmly.
One of his hands found its way in her dress and started to travel up her legs. She tugged at the collar of his shirt when he murmured that he couldn’t wait to be with her.
“Jay, we have to stop.”
“We do,” he brought his head up and kissed her lips. “My cab to the airport should be downstairs.” He straightened her dress and checked his watch.
“I don’t understand.”
“I came back from Belfast for you. I have to see someone in a few hours and there is a meeting I have to chair on Monday morning.”
She didn’t know how to respond to this, not wanting to sound ungrateful.
“Don’t tell me I shouldn’t have come back. You don’t know what you do to me.”
“Thank you,” she embraced him.
“For making me feel like a new woman.”
“You make me happy. I would be a fool not to hang on.”
She had just finished her shift when he came back on Monday night. A baby had thrown up on her uniform and as she didn’t want him to see her like that, she hopped on the bus. Annabel had gone to Nigeria for the half-term break and his mother was well enough to have gone to see a family friend for the week. His voice was laced with disappointment when she told him not to drive to the hospital.
“When is Mummy back?” She asked, to distract him.
“She will be in Slough for a few days. Her friend’s daughter is a nurse, so she should be fine.” He was struggling to concentrate. She deduced from his weary voice, it was because of tiredness not lack of interest.
The bus driver was driving erratically on the country lane and a quick stop at a bus stop heaved her forward. She whimpered as the coffee flask in her bag dropped and landed on her foot. She picked it up. Explaining what had happened did not result in sympathy from him.
“I could have picked you up. But you didn’t want to be alone with me.”
“Sorry, sweetie. I’m tired. Ignore my grumpy mood.”
“It’s your age, old man.”
“Old man?” He laughed. “Hope you remember that when I put you across my knees tomorrow for a well-deserved spanking. I have the strength of a twenty-year-old. You can come and find out tonight.”
“Another day. We can see each other another day. Not tonight.”
“Okay my one and only. Let me shower and sleep. I’m tired.”
“Call me in the morning.”
“First thing, babe. I will drive you to the hospital in the morning. We can spend time together like that.”
“That’s great. Thanks.”
“I will be right outside at seven thirty. Good night, my love.”
“Love you, sweetie.”
She smiled as she ended the call. A cunny, happy smile. She hadn’t felt like there was anyone out there that loved her for a while. The relationship between her and her sister was now at best, frazzled because of Bolaji.
There was a time that her sister called her every day. When her voice saw her through cold, winter days. When she listened to Nigerian songs recommended by her sister and their bond stayed as solid as a piece of rock.
In the morning, he was waiting outside for her. At the end of her shift, he was waiting too. He walked her to her door holding the takeaway, fried chicken he bought her in case she hadn’t had lunch and when she told him he could come in if he wanted to, he shook his head.
“No Issy. You don’t have to invite me in because you think I want to. Let’s take things slowly like you want. Go in. Go and get some rest.”
Although the overtime shifts sapped her and made her wish bedtime would come quicker, she called him that evening. They talked until it was luridly dark outside and the bedroom lights had to come on. And when he told her about his school days in Enugu, she pictured him in his school uniform vividly.
They spoke the night after and it was her turn to talk about her childhood. The contrast between living in Ughelli and llupeju were easy to talk about. What wasn’t easy to talk about was what her uncle did to her. And how she was happy that her aunt walked in just in time. Only for the woman to blame her and scar her.
Days later when she received a message from him late in the evening, she was surprised. He had come to see her at the hospital at lunch time and she knew Miles and Idriss were going to be with him that evening.
She read it, surprised to see the many endearments. Baby, I need your help badly tonight. Mummy is back. I’m worried about her. Can you come over please? Please my sweetest baby. You can spend the night and keep an eye on her. Please baby. Get a taxi, I will pay.
Obinna walked back into the living room to find his friends chuckling. Ikumapayi, who had joined the party and turned it into a beer-fest and Miles were cheering whilst Idriss stared at the screen of Obinna’s iphone.
“What are you doing?” He clicked his fingers.
“We were… trying to help you get some action, dude.” Idriss grinned.
Obinna saw that Isio had sent him a message, coming over right now. He clicked on the message before hers and saw what his friends had done. “Guys, what is this?”
“Na Idriss cause am,” Ikumapayi chortled. “The man say you dey walk round like man wey no get wife at work.”
“You can call her,” Idriss picked up his drink and winked. “Call her and tell her not to come.”
He didn’t call her. He couldn’t. His friends filed into Miles’ car when she arrived. He walked with them to the car to give him time to plan how to respond to the suspicious glances she shot him.
“Mummy is not here, is she?” She snapped when he walked back in and shut the door.
“The guys sent that message.”
“I’m surprised you couldn’t tell it wasn’t me. I don’t call you baby.”
“Why did you let them do that? The last train would have gone, Jay. Now I’m stranded.”
She walked rapidly away from him and despite her anger all he wanted to do was pull her to his body. Her bottom cheeks swayed from side to side in her dress.
“I can’t drive you home, sweetie. I have had a drink…a few. Just sleep here.”
“Let me guess, your brother is not here either.”
“He has gone clubbing with Meimu.”
Isio picked up her bags and jacket from the table.
“You can sleep in Annabel’s room.”
“So you can wander in during the night, no thanks.”
“On my daughter’s bed? I don’t get down like that.” He pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and peeled wads of notes out. Handing over the money, he could feel his heart pumping rapidly. “Get a taxi, Issy. Go home, goodnight.”
He was in the shower until the hot water started to go lukewarm. The boiler emptied too soon these days.
Obinna strapped a towel around himself and stepped on the bath mat as he walked out of his bathroom. Although the lights in the bedroom were off, he could see the outline of her body in the dark.
“I’m sorry, Jay. Please forgive me.”
He didn’t have to say anything. He went over to her, picked her up and carried her to his bed. She kissed him back this time, her confidence fully awake in the dark. He teased her with his lips, almost exploding when her hands touched his body, guided by his determined ones.
“I love you,” he said as he unhooked her bra. “I will still love you if you are not ready.”
“I love you, too.”
When he sheathed himself, she looked away shyly. He returned to kissing her and telling her how much she meant to him. How he couldn’t wait to marry her because that was what he felt.
Afterwards, she stayed beneath him for a while and the stained sheets underneath them.
“You should have told me,” he panted and heaved off her so he could hold her. “You should have told me you haven’t been with anyone.”
“I thought because of what my uncle did that I wouldn’t be.”
“I can’t change your childhood. But I will do my best to make sure you have a better future.” He kissed her head and tried to get his thoughts together in his head before uttering them. “I don’t usually rush these things. You should know… that I’m fully committed to you. I know how you make me feel and if I have your permission I will be sitting Annabel down as soon as she gets back. She needs to know she is getting a new mummy.”
“You better don’t make it sound bad. We don’t want her to start thinking of me as an evil stepmother.”
“You? Evil stepmother? Nah.”
“Annabel is scared about getting a stepmum.”
“I know.” He kissed her cheek. “It will be fine. You are the kindest woman I know. She already likes you, problem solved.”
He woke up three hours after he eventually fell asleep on top of her. He could feel cold air from outside on his face. She was speaking to someone downstairs. He climbed off the bed and fetched his dressing gown.
He saw his daughter first. “What are you doing back early?”
“Surprise,” Annabel jumped into his arms.
Isio was standing in the doorway, arms folded. He followed her eyes to the cab behind his cars outside. The driver was dragging out a suitcase from the boot but what nearly stopped his heart was seeing Kelly coming out of the cab.
She toddled to the door in her sky-high heels and sun hat and handed Isio her handbag. “Hi. I’m Kelly. Can you be a dear and put that away.”
Obinna could hear his daughter speaking. But Kelly had strolled towards them and kissed his cheek. Her lips were covered in pink and she chewed her gum as she spoke.
“I thought we would surprise you, James. Are you happy to see your wife?” She corked her head back at Isio who looked like she was about to faint. “Yes, we are actually still married. Very much so, darling.”