*** *** ***
Isio had been on her bed for a while before she heard a quiet knock on her door. She had been sat, ears pricked up, unable to go in the kitchen or the bathroom for a shower.
Biba came in, smiling a forced smile. “Do you want me to bring in your food?”
“Is your boyfriend still here?” Isio folded her arms across her chest when her friend didn’t respond.
“I thought you didn’t like him? Issy?” She faced the small, wall mirror, picked up a clunky hairbrush and started on her blonde extensions as if she didn’t have a concerned expression on her face. “I like him. I really like him. I know he prefers you because you are the beautiful, sweet one…”
“You are beautiful too,” Isio interrupted. Her friend’s self-esteem issues surfaced every so often. It didn’t baffle her anymore. Biba was worse than an orphan. Her mother died giving birth to her. Her father, a famous politician in Nigeria abandoned her. Gifting her to one of his mistresses. A fate not much better than the rest of his sixteen children who were either in boarding schools during term times, with househelps during school holidays or dumped with relatives.
“You are sexy and yet classy at the same time.” Isio unfolded her arms. “I don’t care about Chibuzor. That is not the problem here. The problem is, I don’t want a man l’m not comfortable with in my home.”
“He will be gone by tomorrow morning.”
“He is spending the night?”
“Please, don’t ruin this for me. I really want him.”
“Do you expect me to be fine with him here overnight? You know what he tried to do to me.” Her eyes had started to fill with tears quickly. Her hand went to her face. Crying was a character flaw she had tried to stop in her teen years unsuccessfully. It often started with her voice wavering. A lump in her throat and her eyes filling up rapidly.
“Please na. I’m sure he didn’t mean it. You know how guys think. They are not like us.”
“Yet, you are the one who is forcing me to sleep under the same roof as him.”
Biba dropped the hairbrush on the bed beside Isio. “You know what you can do if you don’t want to stay here tonight.” She sniggered. “Oops, I forgot. You don’t have friends you can crash with.” She left after that, slamming the door after her.
Isio wiped her face and packed her work bag. She called Obinna’s phone and ended the call on its second ring. Although, he told her during their conversation at the pentfloor flat she could stay with them at the house if she wanted, she wasn’t sure if this was appropriate. She wasn’t sure how to ask him either.
Isio walked past Chib watching her TV, past her friend who asked where she was going.
It was when she got to the bottom of the stairs of the building that it downed on her that she didn’t really have anywhere to go.
There was Sam, a porter from the hospital with a faint Kenyan accent. Sam loved peanuts. He walked around the wards with bags of them, taking them into the toilet with him. But their colleagues all claimed he loved Isio more. Waiting an hour or more for her to finish her shift so he could drive her home.
Sam would house her. He lived with his two sisters in a house. Yet, she didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night to find him staring at her. Or trying to do what Chib tried to do.
She was still at the bottom of the stairs when the lift door opened and Austin came out of it holding his wife with one hand. The other, around a holdall.
“Hi,” Austin greeted her. Letting go of the holdall, he pulled his wife closer and whispered something to her.
“What are you doing down here?” Kanyin had tissues in her hand. “Hubby is on his way to Ribble now.”
Isio left her bag on the stairs and joined them in front of the lift. “I thought you were supposed to be leaving this afternoon Austin?”
“That’s true. I should be there by now if only your friend would let me go. She has been holding on to me, begging me to stay.”
He ignored his wife’s eye rolling. His hand, however, did not let go of her. Isio could see why. His wife’s dress, a pink, sports dress hugged her body and displayed her small curves. Her dark skin glowed as usual. And her earrings were the same colour as her platform sneakers. Diamante white.
“Can you look after my wife Issy? She can’t cope without me.” He grinned.
“Who can’t cope without you?” Kanyin tried to take her hand back. “See this one.”
“Bae, you’ve spent most of the afternoon pampering me. Asking me if Aspire could not find another manager to do the restructuring in Ribble.”
“What are you doing down here?” He asked Isio.
“Biba is entertaining Chib upstairs. They are seeing each other apparently.”
“What? That guy…”
“I was just trying to think of where to stay tonight. I don’t fancy staying under the same roof as him.”
“You can stay with us.” He glanced at Kanyin who nodded quickly. “My wife doesn’t snore, I promise.”
Kanyin slapped Austin’s back playfully. “Yeah you can stay with me. I can lie and say this one here can go and push Chib out of your flat for you but you will be waiting until next year.”
“Why are you volunteering me?” Austin picked up his holdall. “After using me all day and making me sweat.”
“I don’t think Issy wants to hear what we have been getting up to. Come on, handsome, let’s see you off.”
Whilst waiting for the couple to finish hugging and kissing each other, her phone rang. It was Obinna. He rang again whilst she was settling into the apartment with Kanyin. She spoke in a hushed tone, explained how she had needed to check her rota with him as she couldn’t find hers in her inbox. His goodnights as usual went on a while. Kanyin’s expression told her she was both amused and curious. And Isio found herself giggling and telling her all about Obinna. About their first meeting. His unexpected visit. How she felt and her fear that she would never be good enough.
The Obinna she saw over the next few days was different. He didn’t flirt with her. He didn’t laugh at her jokes.
She hardly saw him. He was in Paris for a day, locked in his room for an important call the day after. If his mother did not fuss over her and his daughter did not follow her around the house, she would have regretted coming back.
The day he came back late in the evening from a meeting in Newcastle, Isio was returning cleaning products into the cupboard. Her hands ached. She couldn’t wait to finish her shift and head home. Although the thought of returning home to Chib who had turned their sofa into his bed left her feeling queasy.
It was Kanyin’s she couldn’t wait to get to. Hearing Kanyin’s new wife mistakes. How she nearly set fire to the kitchen once in the name of cooking ewa aganyin. Turning her husband’s white shirts pink after putting them in the machine with a red top.
The one that worried her – as Kanyin didn’t chuckle when she mentioned this –was Austin’s obsession with having a child.
Isio waited for Obinna to repeat her name before rising. She washed her hands under the sink whilst he greeted her and asked where his mother and daughter were.
“Church.” She dried her hands, hoping she sounded as insolent as he did yesterday when he asked Annabel to pass him the Ketch-Up bottle. That bottle had been next to Isio’s box of chicken and chips. She wouldn’t have been embarrassed if Chib and their mother had not noticed.
“Are you okay?” He unknotted his tie and got a bottle of wine out from the fridge. “Would you like to join me?”
“You shouldn’t drink that.” She ignored his questions and moisturised her hands with the hand lotion by the side sink. “Mummy and Annie want you to pick them up from church. They went in a taxi.”
“That gives me enough time to drive you home then.”
“The service won’t last that long.”
“I will take you to the train station then.”
“No, thank you.”
“It wasn’t a question, Issy.” He placed the bottle back. “You are supposed to finish at nine. It’s only half past eight. Technically, it’s still work hours.” He rested his back on the wall corner behind him and watched her as if studying her would help unpick the nubs of tension between them. “I know I have been somewhat distracted this week. Is this why you are giving me the cold shoulder?”
“I have been busy too.”
“Don’t act like you want him,” Kanyin warned last night. “Don’t act like it’s all cool either. He has been a jerk. Treat him like one, in a polite way.”
“I will get my bags. Then you can give me a lift to the station.”
The journey to the train station wasn’t as awkward. Glancing at him, stroking his chin, whilst he waited for the traffic lights to change, she felt a new longing coarse through her.
“I like you,” his voice was rough as he brought the car to a halt. “I really do. I just can’t deal with relationships right now.”
She picked up her handbag and placed it on her thighs. Then she unfastened her seat belt. Doing whatever she could to keep her hands and mind busy. Until, he took one of her hands and held it.
“I don’t want things to be weird between us. Are we still friends?”
She nodded. She hugged him when he asked for a hug when they alighted. Her body aligning with his as if they were made to fit one another.
She appeared confident. Extremely so. Like someone who knew no man could walk past her without wishing to talk to her. Obinna said her name. Clarrissy. And like someone accustomed to having to spell her name, the girl did. Pouting and mouthing slowly in the same way she had seen Biba pout and mouth with attractive men.
She wished she had called his mother or daughter’s phone to make sure they were in before coming over.
Isio did not like Obinna’s relaxed posture next to the girl or that his jacket had been unbuttoned. She did not like it either when he introduced her as his mother’s nurse.
“Nurse?” Clarrissy wrinkled her brows. “On the terrible wages they pay in this country?”
“Not everyone wants to be a doctor like you,” Obinna interjected.
“Surgeon,” she scoffed. “Get it right. Brain surgery is no beans.”
“She’s gonna be a famous Neurologist by the time she is done with her training.” He looked up briefly at Isio, “Mum should be back soon, join us.”
“She can get us something to eat. Seeing as she has nothing to do.”
Isio had never been a quick thinker. Biba would have replied with one of those sarcastic insults of hers and strutted off.
She did walk away. As she did, she could hear the girl giggling. She could hear Obinna saying something in Igbo. The girl continued giggling. Isio took her phone out of her bag when she heard her call him sexy tiger. She would call the agency and let them know her patient wasn’t in. She would not stay even if Obinna promised to pay her triple her rates.
Waiting for her on her phone was a message from his mother.
We will be back later my dear. Please cook something nice for Obinna and wait for us. God bless
She was watching a short drama on YouTube in Annabel’s room when she heard light knocks on the door.
Obinna said sorry when she opened it. “Clarrissy had no right speaking to you like that.”
“It’s okay.” She had seen the girl’s flashy jeep outside. Perhaps if she drove a car like that rather than chasing after buses and trains, being unkind would not matter to her either.
“She is kinda spoilt. I remember her telling off their sixty-year-old house help when her uniform was given to her with a stain on it. The younger domestic staff got it worse.”
It was like she thought. The girl came from those kinds of homes where the helps were not considered as humans. They were to be treated and discarded like inanimate objects.
“Her father is a great guy but… you know how it is.”
“So, she is a family friend?”
He laughed. His laughter as powerful as his deep voice. “What are you trying to ask me?”
“Nothing,” she looked away.
“I don’t roll like that, Issy. Her Dad was my senior in school.”
“Well, she wants you.” She wanted to tell him she understood because she did, despite not liking Clarrissy. She would have been exactly like her if she had begun puberty around him.
“It’s just a silly crush,” he glanced at the Gold Acer laptop on the bed. “Are you coming down? Or would you rather watch boring Nigerian films on your own?”
“Why do you want me to come down?”
“To watch some Nigerian films Anu bought Mum,” he glared at her when she started to chuckle. “Don’t mock me. Films are better watched with someone. And I’ve ordered plenty of food.”
Isio woke up with a splitting headache on his mother’s birthday. She had woken up in his bed next to Annabel, having spent half of the night listening to the girl moan about her new school and her lack of friends.
Her headache worsened when she heard voices downstairs.
“It’s Idriss and his family.” Obinna said.
He was standing in the doorway. She sat up, covering herself with the blanket as she did so.
“Anu has never heard of Nigerian time.” He grinned. “Don’t worry, you two can take your time. The cake is already here. So, relax. See you downstairs when you are ready.
Anu was a confident woman who shook her hand and asked her questions about herself. She patted her son’s head, a boy who looked around three years old and had the same dark skin as his father whilst holding a glass of non-alcoholic wine. Her daughter, a tall girl with long hair did not look like her either. She apologised about the absence of her stepsons and informed her that her stepdaughter would be there soon.
Isio knew Kanyin would be there. Biba would latch on to Kanyin like a conjoined twin. She had spent the last few days trying to discourage Biba from coming after Chib asked her during a rare moment of kindness. Unfortunately, Biba had bought three dresses online the week before. Telling her that Chib might not be ready to introduce her to his family did not dissuade her.
“Have you met Isio, Aisha?” Idriss asked his wife when he walked into the kitchen with Obinna.
She wondered why he called his wife Aisha. But he did it again after Anu said she had. This time he spoke in Yoruba.
“She is the one our friend is going crazy over. The reason he is not sleeping.”
Obinna despite not understanding narrowed his eyes at him. “Do you want me to do that?” He came towards Isio where she was, chopping lemons and cucumbers for the cocktail drinks later. “You know Mummy will be waiting.”
“I will help,” Anu said. She whispered to Isio after the men had sat down at the table. “Sorry about my husband. We are all just excited for Obinna. We were all close to Emeka, his brother that passed away. My best friend was with him for a few years. She is not here today. Morning sickness.”
She wondered about this. Obinna had told her last week about Emeka falling for Kanyin shortly before his death. Then, all she had wondered about was why Kanyin did not tell her.
The Okadigbo men were more complicated than she had assumed.
Isio was writing down Mama Jolof’s account details and thanking her for the food, when Chib tapped her on the shoulder. He pointed in the direction of the garden. His mother was under the gazebo with Annabel, Biba and Kanyin. Biba who had not left Mrs Okadigbo’s side since they arrived was now massaging the stylishly dressed woman’s feet.
“Thank you, ma.” Isio nodded at Mama Jolof and walked towards the doorway with Chib. She couldn’t ignore him. This morning he threatened her when she asked him to sort his relationship out. “We don’t want my bro knowing what went down, do we?” He had bit into his toast and winked. “Sort your friend. Don’t test me. My bro will go off you the minute he finds out. He is a family man. He would never tear this family apart for a girl. Especially a nobody like you.”
“I’m trying my best.” She said. Chib’s nostrils were flaring. Anu and a mixed-race woman, Isio was trying to impress earlier with her nursing career were standing at the side door of the kitchen. “Biba will soon get tired.”
“Really? She is talking about babies.”
“Give it time.”
“Well, can I have some fried rice. I will deal with the stupid girl later. Give me plenty of meat and juice, okay?”
“Chibuzor, you have hands.” Anu looked like she was going to pull Chib’s earlobes. “Don’t speak to her like that.”
“She is the help,” Chib laughed. “When she is not busy fucking my brother, she is busy mopping the floor. What’s the big deal?”
The women looked horrified. Isio would have been fine. If Obinna, Idriss and two others whose name she couldn’t remember had not come into the kitchen at that time. She dropped the notepad and pen she had been holding and ran out of the room.
He mouthed sorry when he came upstairs. She let him hold her. And as he moved his hand behind her, she realised that she didn’t care how his brother made her feel. Nothing mattered but their moment together.
Neither of them heard Ikumapayi until he spoke.
“Obi, my guy, should I close my eyes? Are you busy comforting your nurse? Idriss say make una come. Miles don come.”
“She is my mother’s nurse actually.” He withdrew from her and mouthed another, sorry.
“Enh now. Same thing.” Ikumapayi showed his teeth as he acknowledged her with a slight, conspiratory nod. “Do you have any nurse friend like you that can come and live with me and my wife?” He was chuckling to himself as he left with Obinna.
Kanyin and Biba came up claiming Obinna sent them up. They helped calm her. They asked to do her make-up and hair. Afterwards, Isio inspected her appearance in the mirror.
She let herself smile. Until her eyes followed Kanyin’s to what she was staring at. Through the drawn window blinds, downstairs, to the front of the house.
At first, it appeared as if Obinna and his brother were just talking. But then they saw Obinna aim his fist towards Chib’s face. Although the latter was saved by Idriss and Miles who pulled him away, he started to shout in Igbo. Isio flinched when she heard him say her name and laugh. Obinna, tried to push past Ikumapayi who grabbed him and yelled for him to calm down. “Do you want Mummy to see you like this, dude? Do you?”
“I think the party is over,” she told the girls. “So is my life here.”
“Do you think Chib has told him what happened?”
She wasn’t sure which one them asked the question. She didn’t turn around, either.
Chib had driven off immediately after the row. And although, her friends were able to persuade Isio to come downstairs, the more she looked in Obinna’s direction, the more she wanted to run.
He was flanked by his friends, drinking from a beer bottle. She flinched when she caught him glaring at her at one point and decided to join his mother on the way to her room. She had just been talking to her friends who had decided to go home in a taxi paid for by Anu.
“Mummy, are you okay?” She asked when the older woman sighed.
She did not reply. She did not let Isio open her bedroom door either. Her shoulders were drooped in defeat.
“Mummy, it isn’t what you think.”
“Chibuzor wants to kill me.”
“That boy. That boy.”
The silk scarf the woman had in her hands dropped to the floor. Isio helped her sit in bed. She didn’t look like she could manage it herself.
“Mummy please, calm down. Your hands are clammy. I need to check your blood sugar. Let’s treat it before you become hypoglycaemic.” Her girlfriend, nearly girlfriend skills were nil. Obinna would probably accuse her of all sorts. Yet, she intended to continue to be a good nurse to the woman. “You are not becoming ill on your birthday.” Ailments did not frighten her. What worried her was the prospect of having her patient in a coma on her birthday. She fished out a test kit from the dresser’s table. “Please Mummy, give me your finger.”
“If death wants to take me, let it. At least, I will not be mocked about my children’s mistakes.” Tears were trickling down her face, fast and quick.
“What mistakes? Mummy you are scaring me.”
“Habiba. The girl you brought here. She just told me she is from Ilorin. That her mother is from the famous Lawal family. This is why I have been looking at her like I’m seeing a ghost. She looks so much like Funmilayo Lawal.”
Isio did not know what to say.
“Do you remember the rich man’s wife I told you was pregnant for my husband? Do you remember me telling you her name was Funmi Lawal?”
She sat down next to Mrs Okadigbo, feeling too weak to continue to stand.
“I’m sure your friend is the product of that affair. Chibuzor has been sleeping with his sister.”