Obinna’s stomach groaned. The strain of Isio’s feeding had gotten to it. He had to abandon his belt after she served him two heaped plates of Nigerian Chinese rice.
Last night, it was pounded yam with a bowl of afang stew. Another bowl of egusi stew with the kind of meat that tasted like game meat. Right after, she knelt before him and unzipped his pants. He would have enjoyed himself more if a tooth had not come dangerously close. Afterwards he had held her and reassured her.
It had started on Tuesday evening. When he came back from work and found Chibuzor in his room. He was showing Isio the new tattoo on his lower rib cage. A scorpion tattoo. It wouldn’t have bothered him that she was bent double looking at it, if she didn’t seem so comfortable. On their first night together, she hadn’t been that comfortable with his naked body.
“I was just checking it for him,” she had followed him into the bathroom. Held on to him even when he told her he needed to ease himself. “He thought it was infected.”
Last night, he found himself reassuring her. Nightmares where he turned his back on her plagued her nights. “Everything and everyone is against our union.” She sounded like she was crying. “Nothing can break us,” he whispered. Whispering it again when she didn’t respond. As he finished the drink Idriss had offered him, he wished he had said much more.
I trust you, he could have said. But Aunty Ejiro had caused more havoc than he would admit. Even when he led Isio to her room on Monday and she asked what Aunty Ejiro said, he wasn’t aware of it then.
But later on, when she told him she didn’t visit her mother because her mother lived too far away, he had realised it then.
They had joined Biba and Idriss in the living room to eat the pizza Biba ordered, when he asked her again. He was gentle. Very gentle. His hand was holding one of hers, when he asked her where her mother lived. And when she giggled and said too far, he left it there.
When they were back in the room again, he picked it up again, arranging his words like threads needed for sewing. “I’m asking you because I want you to tell me more, sweetheart. I know your mother lives in Stratford because Elohor told me. Don’t blame her. She was trying to explain that it wasn’t your fault. That you didn’t mean not to tell me.”
He had gone to her and squatted beside her. She was sitting on one of her colourful puffs. The yellow one. She once told him she had preferred sitting on low surfaces since the day her aunt pushed her off a stool.
He didn’t touch her because he knew that would have ended the conversation. Her nightdress would have come off, the way her uniform and tights had.
“Issy-sweetie, you don’t have to tell me everything about your life. But at least I deserve to know my future mother-in-law lives very close to my workplace.”
“Sorry,” she had fidgeted. “I’m sorry. I just didn’t want you to think I’m a bad person. What kind of girl lives in the same city as her mother and only visits her once in four years?”
“You and your siblings are not like that. Even Chibuzor who is not nice like you guys, he still cares about Mummy.”
“You should have heard the way she was screaming on the phone this morning. Apparently, my brother ate all the jolof she cooked last night. Then this group of Afghan brothers, our neighbours chased him to the door. They said he chatted up their sister.”
She did not smile so he had reached for her. Her body, resting on his.
“It’s complicated, sweetie. Your father’s family drove the woman away. You didn’t really get a chance to really bond with her. How can you be chasing a woman that didn’t really get the opportunity to be your mother? Don’t worry. It will all work out. We will go and see her together. You can start again with her.”
They had kissed and soon enough, he was leading her back to bed. And then Biba’s grating laughter followed by Idriss’ interrupted them.
“I don’t like what your friend is doing with mine,” Isio was frowning.
“As long as you like what I’m doing with you,” he had continued kissing her neck that night.
“Dude,” Obinna clicked his fingers, not caring that Idriss’ eyes were still on his phone’s screen. “Issy doesn’t like your closeness with her friend. You know it will make relationships between her and your wife awkward.”
“My wife said I can do whoever I want, wherever I want. As long I don’t bring it home. Tell your sugar baby it’s cool.”
“Sugar baby? Issy is not my sugar baby. My girl works and rocks.” He had studied him this past hour –the mischievous expressions on his face, abandoning his Hennessey, paired with the occasional throaty laughter could only mean one thing. His focus on the phone wasn’t work but a girl. Biba.
He had liked Idriss the first time they were introduced. Even when he was just Emeka’s friend and he failed to see what the two talked about. Even after the man corrected a newly recruited agent who spelt his name with one s.
“I don’t think this thing you have with Habiba will help your marriage. You might think it’s all innocent. What happens if she starts to fall for you.” Obinna looked around. The rich décor did not mask the emptiness of the house. The lack of people about. The takeaway boxes on the dining table. The smell of bleach and new kitchen equipment in the kitchen rather than food. His friends’ second home reminded him of what his house was like before his mother and daughter joined him. Before Isio. When he spent most of his weekends in Ribble Greaves envying the way Anu and Idriss made each other laugh without opening their mouths. “Why don’t you go home. Go and see your wife.”
Idriss glanced at him and returned to his phone.
“Give the engagement tomorrow a miss. Your wife sounded ill so I don’t think she will come. Go and see her. Ask her what’s going on.”
Idriss placed his phone on the table and picked up his drink. “Tomorrow, I’m busy. Biba and I are hanging out here. As two adults, we can decide to make the evening colourful.”
“She is the same age as your daughter.”
“Age is just a number, chief.”
“Right. Tell me, who is Ariana Grande?” He credited his vast knowledge on trendy matters on those days when he would spend hours talking to his daughter. Before Isio.
“Ariana who?” Idriss scrunched up his face. “Abeg, don’t question me. Someone from Frozen, the film my daughter likes.”
“No. You don fail. Na American popstar.”
“Who your information help?”
“The point is, these are the kind of singers Habiba will have on repeat mode. Why mess up your marriage because of a girl you can’t keep interested.”
“Why will I need to keep her interested? One night and I move. Shebi, you are the one with the problem. Abi, is it not the same age difference between you and your babe.”
“She is a year older. Mature and independent.”
“You are the one with the problem o. I hope she doesn’t turn to your fine brother when you are off traveling. We have seen the way he follows her like a puppy and you leave them in the same house.”
Obinna picked up his glass cup and served himself from the wine bottle Idriss had procured from the bar when he arrived.
He took his phone out and saw her messages had found home in his phone’s inbox. Her tone, as usual, joy-inducing. Her messages were moulded this way. Shaped to perk him up.
I need to come to yours Jay. I need to come to yours to sleep. Sleep, okay. I’m tired. No wandering hands tonight. If your hands wander, I will just go and sleep in Mummy’s room. And I will tell her you were disturbing me.
These girls are about to skin my legs in the name of getting ready for tomorrow. They even hired a make-up artist. They are threatening to shave my eyebrows in my sleep if I don’t let them rub this smelly green paste on my face. See what I’m going through for your company’s party. Please save me before they turn me into a mannequin. Or I push them into the fryer.
“You will look beautiful in whatever you wear tomorrow,” he typed back. I will ask Ekong to come pick you up right now. He is in your area working. Get some sleep when you get to our home. Put the heating on. Mama is at her friend’s. I have someerrands.
As he typed the last bit. No underwear, of course,” he blamed this on his friendship with Idriss. I won’t wake you until you have rested, sweetie.
Obinna typed a quick message to Ekong afterwards. Ekong would be happy to go and pick up Isio. He often asked of her, his cheerful face donning a big smile.
“I dey joke, chief.” Idriss stretched his legs in front of him and then the serious look he rarely occupied his face with – the one reserved for when he had something serious to say – appeared. “Your problem, if you ask me is Kelly. Miles told me you moved her into the house on Chard Avenue. Bad idea, if you ask me.”
“I did it for my daughter,” he was pleased that unlike everyone else Isio had understood. That she didn’t think he did it to please Chief Ibe. “I didn’t want my daughter visiting her mother in a hotel.”
“Her father could have paid for a place for her. Now you have given her hope. And more reason to keep turning Annabel against the woman who is going to be her stepmother.
“I will handle her.”
“The way you are handling Annabel. Or Issy didn’t tell you how your daughter ignores her when she talks to her. How she only speaks to her when she needs money, food and wants her hair done.”
“Let me guess, your side-babe told you this. Knowing her, she probably exaggerated a bit.”
He picked up his phone again. “Come and be going sha. I need to chat with this girl so tomorrow can go to plan. I don’t want to be waiting until her belly swells and it is too late to go there. The belle will sha ruin my plans.”
Obinna glared at him. Belle and belly swells kept repeating in his head. “What do you mean until her belly swells?”
“As in… she is with child,” he drew a round shape in the air with his hands. “She didn’t tell me exactly but I have been round a few pregnant women to know. Plus on Monday when we picked them up, she had an ultrasound picture in her bag.” His eyes widened and then he laughed. The chortling type of laughter. “You think Chibuzor be the papa, abi? Kai, this one is big.”
“I have to go.”
His friend was rambling about not killing himself because of his randy brother.
He wasn’t listening. He couldn’t. When Isio rang him in the car, he watched as the call rang off. Restarted then rang off again.
Why didn’t she tell him?
When he walked into the house – he labelled Kelly’s temporary home – and he found out their daughter was asleep, he wanted to be rude to Kelly. She could have called him to let him know he didn’t have to drive down to pick their daughter up.
She served him a plate of fish and roasted plantain whilst begging him to let their daughter sleep for a bit longer. “She has been so tired. This morning she woke up with puffy eyes. She was yawning as if she had not slept.”
The juice running through the core of his fish came out with the steam. Pushing his fork into its middle, he picked out meaty fish. Eating languidly. Not realising she was watching him.
“You used to like fish.” Her hand was playing with her hair as she said this.
She was dressed in a lounging kind of dress. One that still managed to make her look sophisticated. There was a time she preferred jeans and trousers. A time before him.
He didn’t like acknowledging this was where his preference for dresses came from. Buying Kelly dresses from Lagos, London and other cities that she would sometimes grudgingly try on. She wasn’t like Isio. Even when she attempted to please him, it came with bouts of reminders and naggings.
Her eyebrows, lips and cheek and every other bit of her face had been given due attention. Not the over the top type she did opt for in the past. But a mature blending of colours.
The result was exquisite. She looked stunning.
“I still do,” he returned to his dish and took another mouthful. The fish was quite tasteful. Succulent. Better than anything that she ever cooked him. “You didn’t have to cook for me.”
“I just wanted to thank you.” She crossed her legs and he realised Isio and Chief Ibe were right. That Kelly left her lover so she could come back to him.
“What for? I had to come and pick up my daughter. I told you about the party tomorrow, didn’t I?”
“The Aspire one?”
This was what they told people. That the party tomorrow would kick-start Aspire’s twenty-year anniversary.
“Well, I’m talking about this house. It’s beautiful.”
He spotted the glass, TV cabinet. It didn’t stick out among the homely rugs, cushions and throws.
Ekong had decorated the house. Sticking to what Obinna told him. What he knew Isio and Annabel loved. The opposite of the trendy décor Kelly had always gone for.
The TV cabinet was supposed to go to Isio’s apartment. It surprised him that Ekong didn’t get that part right. Especially when the receipt for the cabinet had been delivered to Isio’s apartment. The young man never made mistakes.
“Thank you, James,” Kelly’s face lit up. “Thanks.”
“I did it for my daughter. We can’t have her mother living in a hotel.”
“You are a kind man. We both know I don’t deserve this kindness.”
“Kel, it’s okay.” He wanted to continue to be hostile towards her. But how could he, she was the only reason their daughter smiled these days.
After drinking the water, he asked for, he started the conversation he knew she would consider hostile.
“I’m so happy we are getting on. We need to, Kelly. For our beautiful daughter’s sake. We need to move on too. We need to be happy.”
He drank some more water whilst she nodded and smiled.
“Issy brings me happiness. This is why tomorrow, I’m going to ask her to officially marry me.”
She didn’t say anything. Her bent neck as she picked at her painted nails was the only indication he received.
“If you antagonise her, you know our daughter will do the same. Please Kel. Let me be happy.”
“Who is antagonising her?” She smirked without pausing what she was doing. “If our daughter doesn’t like her, ask your girlfriend why.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Ask your girlfriend what our daughter knows about her and your brother.”
Isio tried to slow down her breathing. Anu was hugging her whilst Ify and Callista, nurses she worked with on the neonatal ward were waving at her.
Friends of Obinna and Aspire employees were staring at her. A waiter stopped beside her to ask her what she wanted to drink. And Biba who was talking and gesturing to a man with one headset and a clipboard suddenly stopped when she saw her and sashayed towards her.
“You look beautiful.” Biba kissed her cheek.
“That’s what I was trying to tell her,” Anu glanced at the main entrance. “Where is that handsome man of yours though? You two were supposed to come in together.”
“Yes. Where is he?”
The DJ was staring at the door too. As some of her colleagues and friends sang to the chorus of one of her favourite Beyonce songs.
She realised she had been right to worry when they arrived and Obinna asked her to go in. Idriss and Ikumapayi came out to the car and because at that time she still believed the party was been thrown to celebrate Aspire’s anniversary, she hadn’t worried too much.
“He is outside,” Isio told Anu and Biba. “I will go and check on him.” She thought of how he came back very late last night with Annabel and how he asked if there was something she wanted to tell him. So, although Biba was shaking her head, she had already decided to go back to the car.
She saw Kanyin and Austin coming towards them and repeated what she said.
“I will come with you,” Anu linked hands with her.
“That’s not a good idea.” Biba insisted as Kanyin and Austin greeted her.
They wore gleaming white outfits. But they seemed quite distracted. Austin acknowledged Meimunat when she came in. Meimunat who had been moving her head to the song playing stopped beside the couple when she saw them. She ignored her cousin’s cheery greeting and fussed over Isio.
“You look so beautiful. Obi is such a lucky man.”
“Thanks Meimu.” Isio forced a smile. “I’m just going to see what’s keeping him. Thanks for coming.”
“I will come too,” Biba seemed oblivious to Austin’s hostile stare.
“We need to talk, Habiba.” Austin said. “Like now.”
“I’m busy here. Not tonight.”
“It can’t wait. We need to talk today.”
“Fine,” Isio said. “Stay with them. I will go find Jay.” She followed Anu who had started to head out.
Outside, at the car park, Obinna was between the men. Isio could not hear what the men were whispering to him and when she neared them, they stopped talking. She wrapped her hands around him when she reached him. He kissed her mouth and forehead and she wanted to tell him she felt safe with him like this. Warm. Protected.
His friends had stepped back. Anu, whose husband was whispering something to her in Yoruba bore the same worried look Isio had before.
Isio looked up at Obinna’s frowning face. “We can go home if you have doubts. I don’t need you to do this. Whatever this is.”
“I love you,” he kissed her forehead again. “I really love you.”
“Then let’s not do this. I can call Chib and tell him to go back home with Annabel and her friend. I can call Mummy too.”
Mrs Okadigbo and her friend were coming in one of Aspire’s cars. Chauffeured by Ekong whose boss had persuaded him to work all night.
Obinna was scowling and his grip around her had loosened.
“Did I do something? Jay please. Just tell me.”
“Apparently, there’s something going on between you and my brother.”
“What? Which brother?” Even though she knew which brother he meant, she still felt like asking something.
“Chibuzor. Someone told me there is something going on between you and him.”
“Then, that person is lying.”
“Can I have your phone?”
“This same person called me and told me you two were texting each other today.”
She was already struggling. Trying not to cry. Thinking of the people in the house today. Ekong, Annabel, Chib, Mrs Okadigbo, her friend and two Aspire architects did not take long. What she didn’t understand was who could have seen her on the phone and told these lies.
“I text my friends today. I text the make-up lady too to tell her not to bother to come here. That’s it.”
“Let me see your phone then!”
She took her phone out of her purse and gave it to him. Unable to continue like this.
“There is nothing there.” Isio said when he dropped the phone and grabbed his head. She was saying the same thing when his friends came over and Anu picked up the phone from the floor.
“What’s wrong Jay? I didn’t text him. I didn’t!”
“There are messages here.” Anu showed her texts on her phone that had appeared out of nowhere. They were as mysterious as the accusation. Starting from just before six when Mrs Okadigbo and her friend were telling her frightful stories about childbirth. Her phone had been in the bedroom that time.
When she went back upstairs after Obinna introduced her to the architects, she found it on the bed, switched off. She had put it on charge before dashing into the bathroom. Picking it up as they left the house.
“Jay… Someone has set me up. I didn’t text him.”
He was telling his friends about the last message, the one from Chib. The one where he told her he was missing her.
“I have just seen your texts to each other,” He tried to push Idriss who was standing in front of him out of the way. “Let’s go. Let’s go and ask my dog of a brother.”
“There is nothing going on.”
“What about the weird closeness between you two? You act like you can’t stand him then you defend him when I tell you I’m fed up with him.”
“I care about him because of you. I know how important family is to you.”
“Is that why you told him about your first night with me?”
Anu was trying to communicate something with her eyes. A car had arrived with a couple in ankara that were now staring at them. A few of their guests were at the window too.
“This morning he was teasing me. Telling me not everyone can be gentle. Not everyone can hold back like Issy told him I did. What do you think that means?”
“Calm down,” Anu cautioned. “Let’s go to your house and sort this.”
“There is nothing to sort. We’re over, Issy. I hope you are not expecting my child and if you are, fine. I will pay. I will give you the money you want. Anything to keep your gold-digging hands from me.”
Isio felt as if she had been stung. Her insides were whirling in the manner it did when she ate something stale. She started to walk away and the further she walked, the worse the pain got.
She did not stop when she heard a female voice shouting her name. She did not stop when a car parked beside her on the road. She ran until she was breathless and thought her chest would burst open.
The car followed her and stopped when her chest and legs forced her to slow down. Chib came out of the car and gripped her hand to stop her. “Babe stop. What’s wrong? What the hell happened?”
As she narrated what happened, she saw all those faces again. The couple’s, the faces at the window, his friends.
Unable to bear it anymore, she started to cry. Chib held her and continued to hold her even when Annabel and Toyin came out of the car.
“What’s wrong Issy?” Annabel fidgeted with her shiny purse. “Did something happen?”
“Get back in the car.” Chib yelled. Wiping her face with his hands, he asked her to come in the car with them. “We will go home. I will tell my brother, I never sent any text.”
“I hope my father can’t see all this.” Isio withdrew from him. “What would he say?” She remembered her father well enough to know he wouldn’t have been happy about the flashy ring Obinna bought her. And how he paid for her sister’s wedding. She wished she could see her father and make him understand. That she didn’t sleep with Obinna because she thought that would give her access to his wealth.
“I wanted to be a doctor, Daddy.” Conversations with her father used to be done with no one else there. When she was younger and she cried herself to sleep because Aunty Ejiro threatened to stop her education. When the woman beat her with kobokos because she did not sell enough loaves of bread. She would crawl into their shared kitchen corner at dawn and talk to her father. And their one sided conversations was what gave her the strength to fetch several buckets of water every morning.
“Stop talking to yourself,” Chib led her to the car. “We will clear this up. Let’s go home.”
“I’m sorry.” Annabel was bunched up next to Toyin in the car. “Really sorry.”
Isio could not say anything to the girl. She was suddenly too tired to open her mouth. Managing to move her head as she settled beside Annabel. She was like this when Chib swore and Toyin shouted that there was something on the road. The car veered off the road crashing through the fence and crushing everything on its way down. The girls were screaming but Isio did not start screaming until she saw they were heading towards the icy river at the bottom.