Hope you enjoy.
Thanks for the ride.
Uche scooped the egg-fried rice and stuffed mushrooms and cheesy peppers in plain containers with white lids. She poured a good measure of water and liquid soap in the pot that still had bits of rice and egg in it. Having put her food in the fridge, she made her way to her bedroom, ignoring Refiloe’s chirpy hi in the sitting room.
“Are we not eating?” Refiloe’s smile was as bright as her cherry lipstick.
Uche raised a brow. But it was to Efe, curled up on the sofa –dressed in her uniform despite returning home a few hours ago – that she directed her question. “How many people live in this house, Efe?”
Efe muttered something incoherent. The start of an explanation why Refiloe followed her home from the hospital for the third night in a row.
“I don’t care,” Uche shouted louder than she had ever done before. “What I care about is seeing you …waking and sleeping here, Refiloe. If our landlord finds out you are here all the time, he will give us our notice. Now, we all know you won’t try to help us out. You won’t because all you care about is yourself.”
“Take it easy,” Efe followed Uche to her bedroom. “I know she is always here and she doesn’t help us with shopping.” She fidgeted about. “The thing is… she is going through stuff too. Her parents want her to marry by the end of this year. Her parents were not even interested when she told them she bought an apartment. Her mother said men will be too scared to come to her now. So that’s why she started to employ all these tactics.”
“It doesn’t excuse going after another woman’s man. And if I were you, I will even start to put space between us. A woman like her will not think twice before shaking her bum in front of your husband just because she is having a bad day.” She checked her phone for messages without pausing her rant. “She wants Anu’s life. I heard her saying Anu is a spoilt woman who has everything the other day. Yes, Anu’s husband bought her a mansion that most of us can only dream of. The truth is, that thirsty girl has no idea what Anu has been through in her life. She wants what she doesn’t know.”
They heard the front door slam shut. Uche narrowed her eyes at Efe despite feeling a tinge of guilt. She wondered if Efe would see her friend off. The girl didn’t seem to want to, settling on Uche’s bed and crossing her slim legs.
“What’s going on with you anyway,” Efe asked. “You were banging pots in the kitchen. I’m surprised the pots did not pick race.”
“I’m fine, Efe.”
“You cooked and you haven’t eaten. You shouted at my friend. She deserved it, granted. So, what’s up? Is this because of your half caste man? Or is it biracial they say these days?”
“Girl, I’m fine. I’m not very hungry, that’s all.”
That wasn’t all. She had expected Kam’s call all through the day. Yesterday, he had called to say he had evening meetings at work so he could only come for a late night chat. She had expected a message confirming. Nothing came. Despite telling herself that it didn’t bother her, picking up babies with fake enthusiasm at work and turning her phone off, it did. She urged herself to be strong. She would study for her masters and learn to ignore her mother’s settle down conversations. But when she went to the supermarket after work, every man she saw resembled Kam. The cashier’s voice sounded like his.
“So, can I have a small taste of your delicious cooking?” Efe asked. “Refiloe ate my sandwich at work.”
“You need to stand up to that girl.”
“I only told her I wasn’t hungry. Next thing I know she has picked up my sandwich from the table and wolfed it down.”
Uche laughed. “Sorry. You can go and help yourself.”
“I could kiss you. Thank you.”
“Miss kisses, thank you. Go and eat.”
Her phone started to ring whilst Efe was in the kitchen. She fetched her headphones and stuck the ends in her ears before answering Kam’s call.
“Babe, I’m sorry. Looks like I have to cancel tonight.”
“No surprise there.”
“I really wanted to see you.” Kam raised his voice. Something unusual.
“Let me guess, you saw Flo last night.”
“Yes, I did.”
“So, why are you bothering to ring me?”
“I had no choice but to cancel. I’m about to drive down to your end, Anu is missing.”
“What?” Uche jumped off the bed. “What do you mean she is missing?”
“She walked out of the house. Id and Brad said she sleepwalks.”
“Yes, that’s true. Please Kam, find her.” She groped under the bed for her shoes and remembered they were on the shoe rack. “I will go and look for her too.”
“No, stay there. This is why I had to tell Brad. She will only go to places she knows…Where she is quite familiar with. I’m checking out Cooper Street, Brad’s house before he moved is there. Anu used to live around there too. She might also come to your flat or her father’s house. Stay glued.”
“Thanks Kamil for doing this.” Warm tears fell from her eyes. Efe had come back into the bedroom and she was moving her hands and mouth but Uche could not tell what she was saying.
“I love you, Uche. Don’t cry. We will find her.”
“I love you Kamil. I love you with all my heart.”
Idriss could feel his heart racing, his face warming up. He should have let Austin drive. He would. If he had been able to think clearly.
“What did she say?” He asked Austin.
The young man had been on the phone to Kanyin, asking if Anu had come back home. He didn’t have to ask. Having tailed Austin’s short conversation with Kanyin, he didn’t have to. But he needed the distraction.
“Don’t say sorry. We keep looking.”
“We will go to that street where the old building they are getting rid of is. You know am?”
“I don’t think that will be a safe thing to do. I hear that area is where homeless, drug users sleep at night. It is a rough area.”
“I will do it by myself. You can stay in the car.”
“I’m not sure it’s a good idea.”
“It wasn’t a question, Austin.” He had always known that he could give his life for his wife’s. Through this past year’s chaos – mess created by his decision not to talk to his wife – he didn’t forget.
Repressing his feelings for her was easy. He had to do this to save himself. Now she was far away from him. With no knowledge of how he felt.
The familiarity and softness of his voice were what kept her in his car. Everything was wrong. The street lights were too harsh. Her feet were bare. They hurt as if she had trodden on tiny pieces of broken glass.
“Why would I leave the house in my nightie?” She didn’t direct her question at Bradley who was driving. She meant it for herself. As if it was some sort of sealed box that only operated with passwords, her head refused to give her the information she sought.
“I don’t remember leaving the house.” She wanted to scream the words. They sounded more like hoarse mutterings. “Stop the car, Bradley.”
He had already started to pack the car in front of a house she recognised as his mum’s. By the time his mother came out of the house, holding a big, black phone, Anu had gripped the edge of her seat. The apprehension, anxiety and missing gaps in her memory were overwhelming enough. Now she felt like someone who had forgotten how to breathe. As if her lungs were filled with objects. Breathing faster only seemed to make the situation worse.
“Calm down, beautiful.” Bradley put his hands in hers. “You need to breathe slowly.” He opened his door and addressed his mum. “Let’s get her inside. Her hands are freezing.”
“I called Kam so he can let her husband know,” Nancy walked over to Anu’s side of the car, popped her head in and squeezed her shoulder. “Kam called back to say he is on his way here. He says it is best to keep her in the car until he gets here. We don’t want to confuse her anymore than she already is.”
Bradley took off his jacket and wrapped it around her. That didn’t stop her hands from trembling.
“What is wrong with me? Am I losing my mind?”
“No, you aren’t,” Nancy said. “You have had a terrible time lately, that’s all. I will go in and bring you a nice cup of tea. You will feel better after a good night’s sleep.”
“I have to apologise,” Bradley spoke first after his mum went back in. “I’m sorry for all I put you through. I’m sorry for not saying anything about Kanyin’s boyfriend. And about the baby. Kam said to stay away or I would have come.”
“I had doubts…”
“About its paternity?”
She nodded slowly and looked out of the window. “I’m a bad person. It’s just like you said. This is why this is happening.”
“I said a lot of things that were not true. You have had it tough. You have been really unlucky so it has affected you. But one thing that has remained the same is your kind heart.”
She stared at him. “When we were young?”
“Even now.” He locked eyes with her. “You could have reacted in kind for how I treated you.”
“I wanted to. If I wasn’t acting so crazy I would have.”
“You are not crazy, beautiful.”
“How do you explain my walking all the way to your old house in the middle of the night? I better be crazy. At least my husband will understand that way.”
“You were in front of Aspire,” He grinned. “You are the only person I know that sleepwalks to work. That’s how much you love work.”
“I don’t remember.”
“I thought you were fine. Your eyes were open and you were talking. Your eyes were glassy though. As if you were on something.”
She felt too filthy to drink the cup of tea Nancy made for her. She wanted to scrub her feet and bin her pyjamas. The thoughts of her pushing her way through the streets barefooted left her wanting a shower desperately.
She hadn’t touched her tea by the time her husband arrived. Bradley took the cup from her whilst Idriss helped her out of the car.
“Aisha, you have no idea how frightened I was.” He hugged her, looked at her and hugged her again before helping her into the back of the car.
She watched him shake Bradley’s hand. Bradley who was busy mumbling about finding her at Aspire stopped going on.
“Thank you, Bradley. Thank you for finding my wife.”
She didn’t feel clean. After three showers, she felt even grimier. Sat on the edge of the bath tub, dressed in one of her husband’s bathrobes, she had started wondering if to rinse her feet in the tub, just to be sure, when he came in. He picked her up, carried her into the bedroom and placed her gently on the bed.
“I think I should shower one more time.”
“No baby.” He pointed at the tray of bottled drinks, cups containing warm drinks and pastry snacks. “I think you should drink or eat something.”
“Austin has found a place where we can take you. They will treat you. It is expensive but it will be worth it.”
“I’m not crazy. I’m not a fragile woman you can wrap in cotton wool either.” That was the thing about him. He was either too caring or not at all.
Having lived with parents that were not affectionate towards each other, where the ability to carry out roles and responsibilities within the household became substitutes for love, she had vowed never to be in need of affection.
If only her mind and head would let her.
“You shouldn’t have married me,” he sat on his lounger and stretched out his legs. “Look what I have done to you.”
“It is only sleepwalking. I will see someone because it is getting out of hand.”
“Kanyin said we shouldn’t be together.”
“Tough. It is nothing to do with her.” She shifted to the middle of the bed so she could see his face properly. “What matters is what you and I think. What we want. If you think we can save our marriage?”
“I don’t know, Aisha.” He rubbed his face and sighed. “There is too much stuff. I know I love you more than I thought I could love anyone. I really do.” Standing up, he joined her on the bed. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“But if your mind is telling you to walk out of our home in the middle of the night, doesn’t that mean you have had enough?”
Uche flinched when her eyes focused on the clock. How could she have slept for twelve hours?
She ran out of the bedroom without rearranging her bra straps. Her husband was in the kitchen. Bent over the oven, dressed only in tight fitting briefs. For a moment she forgot why she had rushed in barely dressed.
They had been husband and wife for four weeks. Nearly six months since he came to see her during the night to ask if they could be together properly. It was the night of Anu’s disappearance.
“Hi, sexy.” He raised his upper body up and kissed her. He ignored her protests and kissed her again.
“Our guests will be here soon,” she slapped the hand that was now about to pull her knickers lower. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
“I have everything under control.” Kam led her to the dining area where the table had been covered with one of the expensive table covers Anu bought as part of the numerous presents she gave them as wedding gifts. Every part of the table had been lined with party essentials such as plastic plates, cutleries, serviettes, toothpicks with trays and bowls of potato-based snacks, biscuits and varieties of cupcakes.
“Thanks, Kamil. You really have it under control. Don’t worry, anyway. They will all probably get here two hours late.”
“Idriss has his thing at the mosque,” he said. “So, he will probably be a bit late. Ikumapayi called to say blame Hoya and the baby if they are late. Hoya changed her dress five times. And baby Oluwatope needed ten nappy changes.”
She smiled. His efforts with her culture – Asking people to help him pronounce their name properly. They were the examples Efe mentioned when she came round to see Uche’s new place. “You are so lucky,” Efe had beamed.
“What about Anu? What time is she getting here?”
“I haven’t heard from her. I’m sure she will come,” he planted a reassuring smile on his face. “You should go and have a shower. Or do you need me to help you?” Kam had started to help sort her bra straps. One hand at work whilst the other fondled and kneaded.
She stopped herself from wrapping her hands around him. “I should get ready. Alone.”
That didn’t stop him from following her. Further complaints about time prevented him from deepening their kiss but it didn’t stop him from helping her undress. He followed her into the shower cubicle. His shorts stayed on. That was for her to take off. Three weeks of honeymoon in Spain taught her he loved her doing this.
They were yet to get tired of undressing each other. The way they were on their first night together. When Kam joked that he wouldn’t be able to stand up after she sat on him. When he read a poem he wrote for her and Hoya hushed Idriss and Ikumapayi to be quiet. The day he swore in front of their families and friends that he would never hurt her.
Anu’s tears welled and fell. Jadesola played her part as the flower girl brilliantly. Someone apparently promised her ice cream. Idriss acted as Kam’s best man in place of Bradley who couldn’t attend. Nancy explained that Bradley –who had emigrated to Canada to be with Penny, his ex-girlfriend did not want to ask for time off work so soon after getting a job.
Anu looked beautiful in the floor length bridesmaid dress she wore. Uche saw Idriss stare at Anu a few times. The twins came in smart fitting suits. And when Bashir hurt his thumb and ran over to Anu gurgling Mama, there were sounds of aww from their well wishers. But her mother’s performance and her headgear were the ones still talked about.
Her mother had gotten impatient during the priest’s question. “Does anyone here know any lawful reason why Kamil Diggs and Uche Mary Amadi cannot be joined in holy matrimony?” What she thought was a whisper was in fact loud enough to be picked up by the front row microphones.
“Join them already, biko.” The whole church heard.
“Are you still worried that you might be pregnant?” Kam asked. He was buttoning his pants, a guarded expression on his face.
“I am still late.” She pulled out a top and skirt from the wardrobe and searched him. She didn’t think of how this would affect their plans the first time she voiced her worry. She didn’t think about how they had decided to wait and build their relationship first. All she saw were Ikumapayi and Idriss’ laughing faces. “I won’t be as silly as you two. I won’t get caught.” This and more she told them when they teased her after her wedding ceremony.
“What is the point of taking my pills religiously?” She moaned.
Kam walked over and held her from behind. “If we are pregnant, I will be thrilled.” He trailed her neck with wet kisses. “Travelling the world can wait. Giza’s Great Pyramid and Masai Mara will always be there. I will take you to those places when the time is right.”
“What about getting to know each other? What about your plans to rise to the very top at work?”
He turned her over so she could see him. “You have no idea how important you are to me? Nothing comes close…”
He stopped abruptly. Uche followed the direction of his eyes to the white Aston Martin outside she did not recognise. The horizontal blinds were down so she could not see the occupants of the car.
“I’m sure that’s Id’s new car. Hurry up, babe.”
During the months leading up to her wedding, Uche caught herself awake at night worrying about Anu. Her friend had won a prestigious business award. The counselling sessions she attended with her husband were overwhelming. Both of them praised their counsellor’s effort despite this.
No serious sleep walking incidents had been reported. Apart from the one about the empty tube of vanilla ice cream. Jadesola seemed upset about her missing ice cream but that didn’t prevent her father from questioning her. Although Jadesola soon explained that only someone “big and hungi like Uncle Austin” could have retrieved the ice cream from the top freezer compartment.
So, apart from that and Kanyin leaving for Nigeria, the Akinwale household seemed fine. But Anu no longer walked around with the dexterity that they had all come to expect from her. In its place a frailty.
As Uche hugged her again, she noticed she was no longer worryingly slim. Extra flesh had fallen off Anu until Uche started to take home-cooked, appetising meals to her every other day.
“It has been so long, girl.” Uche tried not to stare at her pink headscarf and the baggy, kaftan she had on. “You changed religion and I didn’t even know.”
“We went to the Islamic centre,” Anu said. “Idriss was honoured for his youth organization’s success.”
“Did you bribe them?” Uche asked. Idriss who was hugging her did not laugh like the others.
“I take back my welcome home.” His eyes twinkled as he turned to his wife. “Permission to take Uche down.”
“Keep it up, Uche. At this rate, I will have to send Jadesola and her noisy brothers to you as punishment for a whole day.”
“That would be great.” Kam gave her a knowing look.
“No, that won’t be great.” She knew what his thoughts were. She agreed with the logic behind his reasoning. They could do with spending more time on their own with children if they were having one of their own soon. “Jade can come. The twins, no. Except if they come with one nanny each. I have seen the way those two rascals run around like you.”
“Put a smile on that beautiful face, baby.”
Anu had left Efe, Hoya and Uche to their chatting in the garden and was making herself a milky cup of coffee when her husband came up behind her. The men were all in the living room the last time she saw them.
She shifted backwards. He snuggled closer. She imagined his hands travelling down, his lips on her neck.
That night came back to her now. Exhausted from counselling sessions that unearthed buried emotions, they were almost back to avoiding each other again.
Until the evening he drove her to London. To the same suite of the hotel where she started to fall for him. “Let’s start again,” he begged. “I can feel you slipping away and I don’t like it.” She had been standing at the window and he walked over and held her. That night, he made love to her for the first time in months. A passionate night that was more riveting that anything she had ever felt.
“I’m okay,” she replaced the coffee tin’s lid.
“Liar.” He took her hand. “Come with me.”
If he had not been holding her hand, she would have passed out. The person waiting for her in the lounge was the girl she had not seen for two months. Kanyin.
Her stepdaughter announced her intention to go home unexpectedly. It came after another row with her father. One of those that left dust in the air.
Kanyin became suspicious of her father every time he came back home later than expected. “He is cheating on you,” she whinged to Anu twice. One evening she mentioned Nkem’s awkwardness around him. Anu knew it was the London incident that caused this. She reassured her. That didn’t stop Kanyin from shouting at her father. “You are the worst father ever. I bet you tried to sleep with my friend. Keep denying it but it doesn’t matter because I’m out of here.”
“I’m so sorry.” Kanyin started to cry. “Austin picked me up from the airport. I was too embarrassed to call you.” She looked at Austin who was at the door as if seeking reassurance to continue. “Nkem said nothing happened. She even called me a spoilt brat.”
“You are not spoilt,” Anu hugged her stepdaughter again.
“She is spoilt.” Her husband growled. He didn’t rise from the armchair Kam vacated a few minutes ago. “She has no idea how lucky she is.”
“I’m sure she knows that now.”
“I’m not perfect, Kanyinsola. You can give me grief. I don’t mind. But I won’t let you stress my wife out. If you do…”
“I won’t.” Kanyin rushed to her father and knelt in front of him. “I won’t, Daddy.”
Idriss helped her up and held her. “I love you, Kanyinsola. I know I have made mistakes. My love for you all is pushing me to be the better version of myself. Give it time.”
“I love you too, Daddy.”
Anu got squares of kitchen rolls from the kitchen and teased her stepdaughter as she passed them to her. “What about me, princess? Shey, you don’t love me?”
“Of course, I love you. I love you more than I love Daddy.”
“Aah, Kanyinsola. Next time you want designer shoes, you better ask Aisha.”
They all laughed now.
Kanyin stuck to her side from then on. Her focus sometimes shifted. At those moments Anu would follow her stepdaughter’s gaze to Austin and tease her again.
They were together whilst Uche waited for the result of the pregnancy test she did in the bedroom. Efe had begged Uche to do the test and Hoya fished out an unopened kit from her bag. This happened after Uche told them for the umpteenth time she felt queasy. Anu had been close to dragging her friend to the medical centre for a pregnancy test at this time.
“Well, now you will know.” Efe said between mouthfuls of popcorn.
“You will stop dropping hints every two seconds.” Hoya turned to her baby. Not before Anu had seen her cheeks go red.
“Iku’s wife, Anu has given you mouth.” Uche looked up from the stick. “Let’s not start talking about you and Iku having a scare so soon after your baby’s delivery. Or why do you have a spare test kit in your bag?”
“Well, let’s just say Iku likes it raw and …”
“Ladies,” Anu interrupted. “Young person present.” She pointed at her stepdaughter.
“Oh, easy on the young.” Uche rolled her eyes. “The way Austin dey look at you Kanyin, we all know something is going down or about to.” She winked. “Don’t worry, if you need someone to confide in, I’m here.”
“Like I’m gonna tell you my secrets,” Kanyin laughed.
Anu laughed with her until she noticed that Uche’s expression had changed. She continued to stare at the stick without saying anything. “Are you okay, darling? I’m so sorry.”
“Babe, you can come off the pill and try for real.” Hoya said.
“I’m okay ladies. We will of course start trying now.”
“Do you want me to go and get Kam right now to load you up?” Hoya asked. Her humour warmed up Uche who was soon asking if Hoya needed help choosing the right contraceptives.
Anu undid the headscarf that she had hung around her neck and front. She regretted it when Uche pointed at her stomach. Her eyes widened as she fought to say something.
“Girl! Are you… Are you pregnant? I was thinking you had put on weight.”
“Me too,” Hoya screamed. “I wondered when I saw your chest! Please tell us you are pregnant.”
Kanyin started to scream. Uche joined in. Anu was trying to say something when the men joined them.
Her husband pulled her gently to himself. “Looks like you all know. Sorry we kept it quiet for over four months.”
When he suggested booking an appointment at the fertility clinic in London, she waved him off. “For the future,” he said. “Whenever you are ready.” On the way back, the idea grew firmer.
What she didn’t understand was how two appointments would lead to this.
She cried when she saw their son on the screen. He held her hand and looked away when she asked if what she saw in his eyes were tears.
“I’m sure he is happy for us,” Anu whispered to him whilst the others were still celebrating. “He will be happy to see Uche and Kanyin moving on too.”
“I know,” he muttered and grinned. “Thank you.”
“For continuing this journey with me.”