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“Issy-sweetie, you are scaring me. We’re all worried about you. Mum hasn’t stopped crying. Lotachi has called twice. She wants me to go on my knees when you wake up. She wants you to know she will be the best sister-in-law ever. Trust me, that girl loves you. Just like Ifeanyi and Daddy.” Obinna stopped to avoid mentioning Chibuzor’s name.
Isio looked like she had simply gone to sleep. If he just looked at parts of her face. Around her forehead, cheeks and the bridge of her nose. She looked fine. Not like the unconscious body he found beside his daughter’s at the bank of the river.
Her dress was muddy. Just like his daughter’s. Her hair, wet. Drenched in soil that clung to strands of her twists. Strands that had come apart. The way he came apart when he saw their bodies.
When Chibuzor called him with Toyin’s phone he had been calm. When he told him the car was underwater and Toyin and him had succeeded in getting out before the car sank but his daughter’s seat belt trapped her in, he acted like a sane father. Even when he found out Isio was in the car too.
Overnight, his friends would tell him he had not behaved like a sane man. That he pushed them out of the way when they tried to stop him and trudged the river. Coming up for air and diving back in. Idriss would describe the water as colder than freezing water. Sub-zero.
He didn’t remember that. But he remembered not finding the girls. The excruciating pain as he tried to take a breath. Thinking that his life was over. And seeing them half-submerged in the hedgy swamp on the other side of the river, the pain in his lungs had multiplied then.
Even as he left Isio’s bedside and took the lift he could hear the rattling. It wasn’t as bad as his wheezing when he went downstairs for a smoke. To smoke the pack of cigarettes one of his friends passed him. He couldn’t be sure now which one of them it was. One of Emeka’s friend’s or one of the new friends he had made since he relocated. He could not stop shaking whilst out. Teeth chattering as he tried to hold a cigarette between his lips.
It started when he followed his daughter into an ambulance. When one of the paramedics tried to get him on a stretcher. Worried about his pulse. When he felt pulled in two different directions because even though Biba had gone in the other ambulance with Isio to the hospital, a part of him had gone with them too. Willing Isio to open her eyes.
Even on the humid children’s ward, his body would not thaw out. The thick jumper and trendy jeans Anu brought him last night, her husband’s, clung to him. Keeping the cold intact. In his bones and heart and lungs.
He could hear Annabel talking. She had been sat up talking to Toyin and her father when he left. He couldn’t bear to tell her last night she had two seizures and this morning she went into another one, gripping his hand so tightly, he could not believe her small body was capable of such strength.
He stopped when he saw his mother, Kelly and Chibuzor. It was his mother he didn’t want to see. She came after him when he walked past and headed to the nurses’ station.
“Obinna m,” she drew her handkerchief to her face.
“I told you to go home.”
“My son, please.”
There was no one at the nurses’ station so he had no choice but to wait.
“I should have told you what Chibuzor tried to do to Issy. I didn’t mean to lie to you Obinna.”
“You did, Mama.” He had told her to go last night after she told him Isio and his brother were not having an affair. Backing it up with what she knew. Breaking the fragile bond between him and his brother forever. “How can she? She even turned him down when he tried to do something with her when she was asleep.”
Obinna started to head back. “Please Mama, I don’t need this. Go home. Go and rest.”
“What about your brother?”
“I have told him to get out of my house. We have no problem as long as he does what I want.”
He kept going. Past the vending and coffee machines. And the father he saw wailing this morning when his son was wheeled towards what he assumed was the OR. His face had grown longer, his eyes drained of hope. Obinna pushed the door of the gents open. And even though he did not need to ease himself because to feel the need to, one had to have had a drink go down, he stayed in there a while. Splashing water on his face and neck.
Inside his daughter’s room, she was curled up under the hospital’s white sheets. They were as white as pure snow, the sheets. He stood next to the window, watching his mother and her mother fuss over everything in the room. The tubes, wires, charts and bags and her things.
Biba came out of the lift first. Kanyin and Austin, behind her. They were not holding hands like they usually did. The car journey felt longer than it did last night. She was pleased to see Obinna even though his face appeared gloomier than the couples’.
“Hey Habiba,” he strode towards them. “Don’t worry. She is fine. She is asleep but the doctor said she will be fine. They said it is better she is sleeping like this.”
“You haven’t spoken to her, boss?” Austin exchanged looks with his wife.
Biba knew why. They had planned to come back to the hospital when day broke through. But Isio had rung. Told them she felt fine. They were all together having just dropped Meimuna off at home.
“Get some sleep girls. I’m completely fine.”
Without Isio saying it, they had known she wasn’t. Not completely. Not where Obinna was concerned. It was in the way she didn’t say anything about him.
Obinna shook his head, staring at Austin as he shook his head. He tended to do this, Biba noticed. Staring at people like someone trying to deduce what the speaker wasn’t saying. Although, she saw him do this once with Isio. The day he was questioning her about her mum. She had noticed that his questioning frowns disappeared whenever Isio was with him. That he smiled often. He touched her and kissed her whenever he wanted. This was why she couldn’t believe what Ikumapayi said happened outside the restaurant.
“Let me go back to my daughter,” Obinna said. “Come get me when she wakes up. Please.”
“Okay boss,” Austin answered. He was still nodding even after the man had walked away.
Biba clicked her fingers. “He is gone now. No need to keep smiling, boss’ boy.”
Austin’s smile disappeared. Replaced by a look that was unfamiliar and surprising. “At least, I’m not pregnant by my cousin’s boyfriend.”
“None of your business.”
She had known she would regret introducing Stan to Austin at the new club in Stratford. What she didn’t know was that Stan would ring Austin as soon as she told him she was expecting his child.
“You don’t even feel guilty. You have ruined Stan’s life. You have ruined his relationship with your cousin.”
“He is the one with a girlfriend. Why are you heaping all the blame on me?”
“I blamed him too.”
“Good for you.” The man was one of those who believed people should be married off early and never look at anyone else. That people should work and have no fun. “Sorry, we disappoint you.”
Kanyin ran off. It happened so quickly that she had disappeared through the brown door next to the lift before they could stop her.
“Now see what you have done. As if we don’t have enough to worry about.”
They found her at the bottom of the first flight of stairs. She dried her tears when she saw them. Austin helped her up and hugged her whilst Biba apologised.
She had shed tears more than any of them. Holding her husband as though she needed him to breathe for her. She dotted the silence with her sighs and questions. What about the baby? What if she dies? Their reassurances failed to convince her. And at some point, she had surprised herself by going to hug her. The tears did not stop. Instead, it had felt as if they reached out and caused hers to run down her cheeks.
“She will be fine, babes. And the baby too.” She did not believe the latter.
“We just have to keep hoping and praying.”
“And that gets us where?” She started to shout. “Where, tell me where? Habiba, where?”
Austin rushed to his wife’s side. Putting his arms around her did not calm her.
“Anu has a heart condition,” she covered her mouth and turned to Austin. He seemed to understand her. Carrying on from where she stopped as if they had planned he would speak for her.
“It doesn’t look good. That’s what the doctors said. That’s why she couldn’t tell us when she found out.”
Isio prayed for sleep. She wanted to be away from it all. The awkward stares.
Austin’s chattiness. He had cleverly slotted in information about Obinna. That he was yet to leave the hospital. That he appeared so sorry.
She wanted to tell Austin that there was no way he was as sorry as her. She had always believed that no man thought themselves better than the other because of wealth. Not truly. Even if they were able to afford lifestyles that the poor could only hope for, she thought, deep down, they knew the truth.
She thought of those days when she walked miles to sell the wares on her head and returned home to hunger and abuse. Wondering why it left her intact. Unchanged. Biba’s childhood was not as traumatic as hers. Yet it left her unable to trust. With a face that mellowed for only a select few. Fists that held on tightly to secrets. She wished she was like her. She wished she had held on to much more.
Obinna should never have been told those stories she reeled out like a child promised presents.
“Ekong said Annabel is not okay, at all.” Austin directed his comment at Kanyin beside him but they were meant for her ears.
“Go and get him,” she said. “I will see him like you want.”
“No,” Biba did not eye him like she tended to do. She pulled the blanket on her slightly so as to cover her exposed feet. “You don’t have to see him, darling.”
“I want to.”
“He was a complete jerk to you. He made you feel like shit.”
“I know how he made me feel,” she glanced at Austin. She hoped he would hurry. Not wanting to change her mind.
He also seemed to understand that she did not want to be alone with him. Kanyin had taken Biba with her to the canteen. “We have to get some grapes and drinks for Issy.” And although Biba had rolled her eyes, she had eventually pulled herself up and strolled after Kanyin. Now as she tried not to look at the pitiful man in front of her, she wished they had stayed. He was apologising. As though that could ever change what happened.
“I will be here every step of the way,” he said at some point. “I won’t let you down.”
‘Why?” She was tired of his offerings. Of the arrogance beneath it all. The pretend kindness.
“I’m going to be here for you. It’s my job to protect you.”
“Your job?” she did not look at him.
“You are probably carrying my child, sweetie. I know it’s too much to ask but please forgive me. I wronged you…”
“You have no idea what you did to me.” She thought of her plans to provide him with a test kit on Christmas Day, the one she bought a few days ago, knowing he would have been pleased to find out then and shook her head. She would not cry in front of him. “I will work hard and raise our child alone. I shall never be called a gold digger again. Never.”
“That was not me talking. That was the fool inside me.”
She did not answer him. She shut her eyes and turned. It did not matter that he kept talking, she would not hear him. She could hear Austin telling him she was tired long before sleep came.
“Life is cleverer than we all are. When you think you are winning, you have your road and targets all set out, you are so confident it has all worked out, only then does life strike you in such a way that you are lucky if you ever find your road again.”
Anu had been speaking like this for most of the afternoon. He interrupted her once. Insisting that he acted like a fool, that life did not do this to him. Soon, he realised that she was speaking about herself.
He reached for the hand on her lap and took it in his. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you. We will do whatever it takes.”
She gulped, “let’s concentrate on Issy and Annabel. They are young.”
“You are young too,” he raised his voice and stopped when he realised what he was doing. He grasped the hand in his tighter. This was why she did not tell them. She did not want to deal with this.
She was smiling now. “I’m not scared at all. I have God on my side. Look at the incredible people I’m surrounded by.” She raised a finger when he tried to interrupt. “You made a mistake like we all do. One thing is certain though, you are a good man. I know if anything happens, my children and their father will not be abandoned. You are a good friend. And I choose to see what I have not what’s going wrong.”
“You shouldn’t call me a good man.”
“She will forgive you eventually. She is carrying your child.”
Instead of telling her about the trips to her ward yesterday, how he apologised until he had nothing else to say and the way she carried on as though he was not in the room with her, he picked up his phone, so they could talk about the research he read this morning about heart conditions. About the radical surgeons and techniques. She let him. Her shoulders were slumped and the nods she would often approve good sales with at Aspire did not materialise. Still, she let him.
He was emailing her links, when Kanyin appeared. She greeted her step-mother cheerfully whilst all he received was a tentative, hi. So, it surprised him when she asked him to go and see Isio.
“You were there last night when she refused to look at the food I brought her.”
“Today is different.”
“I will go and see her later.” He could have told her that he had to be on that floor for Annabel’s CT scan. That the doctors would be ready at any time and he had promised her whilst she cried this morning, he would be there whenever she needed. “You have to put her first from now on.” Toyin’s father was firm when he came round at the end of his shift. Yet, he could not think of his daughter or Biba’s scornful smirk when he looked up from his phone and saw Kanyin’s distraught face. “What’s wrong with Issy?”
“It’s not her. It’s the baby.”
“The baby?” He was sure he had voiced the question. He did not expect to have to wait. “Kanyin please?”
“She started bleeding early this morning so they took her for a scan…”
He felt Anu’s hand on his arm and at the same time, a jolt as strong as electrical currents pass travel through him. He dreamt of their child last night. A boy with intense eyes playing in his father’s compound in Enugu. Next, Obinna found himself on a road he didn’t know, a road that was as hilly as it was crooked. When he returned home, his son was waiting with Emeka.
“I need to see her.” He did not wait for Anu to repeat what she said. Nor the lift in the middle of the floor either with people in front of it.
He sprinted up the stairs, through the busy ward, past the trolleys and the nurses in the way. Sure, he would collide with something or someone soon. And he knew he would not wait to apologise.
She was at the window looking out at the gardens below. It did not look like anything was wrong.
He called her name softy. Not because he believed what Kanyin said but because he had put her through so much. “Trust Kanyin to jump to conclusions. Our baby is fine, right?”
She started to turn around, slowly, like someone wounded. He went to her aid and held her because he did not want her falling over. She stared at him with blank eyes, lips clamped shut and it dawned on him, he had lost another child.
“Come to bed,” his throat had started to tighten. He wanted to get his words out quickly.
“Can you pay for me to go to a private hospital?” She had tears in her eyes now. “Please, I can still feel my baby inside me. In here.” She looked down at her stomach. “My baby is not dead. Please tell them it isn’t.”
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Biba chose this time to arrive. She dropped her bags and glared at him. “What have you done to her?”
It took a while before he realised what Isio was staring at as she backed away from him. The small, round shape perfectly visible under Biba’s top.
“Our baby is gone,” she dropped to the floor with a thud and started to bawl.
He did not get to hold her for long. Biba pulled her away from him. She went willingly with her friend taking with her the last bit of his strength left when she shook her head.
“Leave me alone. It’s your fault my baby is dead.”