This is the Pilot – so do enjoy it and let the yarns keep flowing – drop a feedback.
“You are too sexy. I want to give it to you right here.”
Isio was busy checking the labels on the medications in the cupboard when she heard this. Chib had been loitering around the kitchen for a while. Staring out of the double-glazed window. Looking out at one of the best maintained gardens of Lemington Street, a street in Uppington Square. Twenty miles from London, sitting on the north bank of River Thames.
The house, a modern conversion with bay windows and patterned bricks was bought by Chib’s brother a year ago. Months after he moved his family to the UK.
Chib had been speaking to someone on the phone. A boo boo and air kisses were her clues. She had assumed what he said was meant for the girl on the phone. He called her boo boo like the several others. The tall ones. The short, Malawian one. The mum of two. The Fulani, Chelsea-born that had never been to Nigeria. That was him. He had a girl for each day of the month.
“I’m talking to you, honey pot.” He winked as he slid his phone in his jean’s pocket.
“I’m busy. I have to get your mum’s meds to her.” She started to put the medication blister packs back. She had lied. The second thing she did this morning after checking his mother’s blood sugar level was pass her, her prescribed medicines and expensive vitamins.
“Issy, don’t ignore me baby.” He moved closer and rested an elbow on the counter.
She knew it was so he could show off his toned abdomen. This was why- she was sure – he roamed the house half-dressed. He wasn’t a bad looking man. If God had been kind to him and he had been born without a voice, she would have labelled him lucky. He looked like a model. The type who always got called for a job first. Skin a lustrous, healthy colour. The same colour as her friend, Biba’s biracial child. Cheekbones, lips and nose in proportion. Gave the impression that a surgeon skilled in the art of chiselling and sculpting had been at his face.
He appeared well groomed even at night. And the first time she met him, he came to the door in a robe strewn with Channel’s overlapping double C.
She noticed his good looks then. Only for her impression of him to take a nosedive when he started speaking.
“Listen,” he clicked his fingers. “I get whatever I want. I don’t give up.”
“I’m not interested.” She would have left that time that he walked into the toilet, claiming he didn’t know she was in there. If she didn’t need the money. “I’m here to do a job. You won’t catch me doing anything unprofessional.”
“What if I tell you that last night whilst I was doing the chick I was with, you were all I could think of.”
“Then I will say stop wasting your time.” She washed her hands, dried them and popped two slices of bread in the toaster.
“Is it the age gap? It’s no biggie. My friends roll like that these days. You are older but am the toy boy who can make your life fun.”
“Well, I don’t roll like that.”
“What is your problem? Why do you like to act like you are so important? Is it because I’m acting nice?” He started to head out of the room. “Keep pissing me off with your behaviour. Soon, I’m gonna show you who is boss.” And as if he thought his words did not have the right impact, he continued. “Be very afraid.”
She didn’t realise she was wearing her worry over him on her face like make-up until Annabel asked what was wrong. The girl placed the toast in her hand down. She picked up her glass of fresh milk and gulped half of it down. Isio smiled. That was the thing with Annabel. She always seemed to know what she was about to say.
Sometimes it was all too easy to forget. Despite her big stature and cleverness, she was only eleven years old. Twelve in four months. As she handed her two paracetamol tablets, she wondered. Would she have stayed if there was no Annabel?
Weeks ago, she was tired of the girl’s uncle. The way he followed her with those creepy eyes. His mother was too ill. Just back from hospital, fighting off an infection and drained from chemotherapy sessions. Isio heard her cry at night. Asking God to take her. She didn’t want to be a burden to her children. Even if her son’s behaviour had worsened, she couldn’t have troubled her with it. Annabel’s laughter helped shorten the hours.
The things she worried about – the small things that grown-ups could not take seriously. News of her friends and the boys they liked to be unkind to. Boys they actually liked. Worrying about not having a trendy fashion sense like her friends. And the ones Isio understood, the type she had worried about in the past. Worrying that her father would bring home a cruel woman. And the one that made Isio laugh, that the cruel woman would be a beauty vlogger. She would make Annabel film her all day.
Isio didn’t think Annabel was vulnerable. The last woman that tried to snatch her father up, was nearly arrested for slapping her. She chuckled when she told her the story. Making sure she understood, the slap and the reason for it, were all carefully orchestrated by her. Even the timing. Her father – newly arrived from an exhausting working trip in Dubai- had just finished telling her uncle off. The woman, Angel was fed up too. Having to put up with a workaholic man and his daughter, who would rather type on her Samsung Galaxy Tab than talk to her.
“I think you should call, Daddy.” Annabel placed the wrapped hot water bottle on her stomach. “My tummy really hurts. He needs to come home, I’m tired of skyping.”
“Give the medicine time to work.” She picked up her tray and dolled a generous smile on her face. “I will tell him as soon as he calls, okay. Be brave for him. You know how busy he is…”
“I know. He is busy. Hopefully he will come home before he forgets what I look like.”
“I’m only kidding. Or I can’t kid now that I’m a woman according to Grandma.” She rolled her eyes. “Grandma with all her rules. She even said I’m not supposed to talk to boys anymore. Like for real.”
“You should have told her, you have it covered. Your Dad told you most of what you need to know at your age.”
“Nope. Grandma would have lost it. She already thinks Daddy and I are too close. Even though I only see him at Christmas if I’m lucky. She wouldn’t have been pleased knowing Daddy gave me the talk.”
This was what it was. The thing about Annabel that made her happy and sad all at once. Her relationship with her father. It mirrored what she shared with her own father. They were close. Isio, Elohor and their father. But as the older sister, she was the one that stayed up to hear stories about her father’s customers. And the one, who had to tell Elohor when he died. He was thirty-nine, she was twelve. He had been happy the morning he left to visit his warring relatives in Ughelli. They would later learn he died in bed the same night, blood trickling from his nostrils.
She could hear her patient on the phone when she neared her door. Turning around, she went to the room she slept in last night, the master bedroom.
It had felt strange sleeping in a man’s bedroom the first time she stayed over. “It is fine,” Obinna insisted when Annabel called him so she could check with him. “You are doing us a favour. Please stay in my room. It will be safer in there than my brother’s.”
His aftershave and a cherry scent smelt strong on his pillow when she stayed that night. Yet, she couldn’t change the pillowcase. There was something about the large room and it’s en-suite bathroom that made her feel she couldn’t change anything. It was tidy. Too tidy. Exquisite as well.
Velvety purple draperies hung down the huge windows. The beddings, the thick duvet especially and the pillows were the softest she had ever come in contact with. She remembered running her hands along the lines of the silky cream casing of the quilt. Sleep came quick that night and lasted till the morning. Not the hesitant half-blessings she coped with at Biba’s apartment.
She locked the door and showered quickly. Choosing a baggy top and it’s pants rather than the lacy, new dress she planned to wear today.
A WhatsApp message was waiting from Bolaji when she came out of the bathroom.
Bolaji and her were friends for many years. They were born the same year to friends who lived next door to each other. During the years Isio and her sister lived with Aunty Ejiro, a woman who thought nothing of burning her with a hot iron every time food wasn’t ready on time, Bolaji and her father visited every month. He asked the same question whilst she tried not to wince. She had not known before that day that you could not make the face smile because you had been threatened with more beatings. “Are they looking after you?” His eyes often brimmed with tears.
It was thanks to him that his father eventually took them back to Ilupeju. Partly due to her decision to jump between the razor Aunty Ejiro tried to cut Elohor with one evening.
She would never forget how searing pain tore through her as the razor ripped her flesh open. If Aunty Ejiro’s children had not been holding her down she would have taken flight.
Dark-brown incisions like tribal marks on her hand and the scars on her thighs and stomach stayed as constant reminders of that time. Although she didn’t think she would live. Chills and a fever ravaged her body days after the cuts inflicted on her body started oozing pus. Her sister would later recount how Aunty Ejiro called Bolaji’s father to ask for money. Blaming her hospitalisation on her, claiming she cut herself whilst cooking.
Bolaji and her lived in the same home from then on. His mother made jokes about their closeness. But his father wore the shoes once worn by her father firmer than her father did. He insisted she studied in the UK like her father wanted. Telling her too that planning her life around anyone could only lead to disappointments. Calling on God and her father’s spirit to witness his promise, he swore to care for Elohor. Planned with Isio –the one with the British citizenship through birth –to arrange for her sister to join her in London. But her sister didn’t want to join her. Years of excuses about exams and results were all Isio got.
Are you ignoring me again? I tried you last night too. No answer.
Bolaji’s impatience did not remind her of his faultless behaviour. His gentleness. His reassurance as he held her at Murtala Muhammed International Airport.
Hi. Sorry, I’m at work. She typed back. She took off her shower cap and ran one hand through her hair.
I’m at work too. You are not the only one with a job!!
She guessed the exclamations were to make sure she knew how angry he was.
It is rude to keep people waiting!! We used to be good, Isio.
Yes. We were good once. Until I came to Naija to find you’d hooked up with my little sis.
Not this again. I have said sorry many times. I love Elohor and loving her means getting on with you. We were friends, me and you. I never promised you anything. Please, let go of the past.
She didn’t feel the way she felt when it happened anymore. When, unable to sleep, losing copious strands of her thick, healthy hair, she hoped something bad would happen to him. Something that wasn’t serious enough to harm him. Something that wasn’t sinister. She didn’t want anyone to beat him up. Biba volunteered to ring her fitness addict cousins every time she turned down food.
“He deserves to pay,” Biba had launched into a tirade. “You have been sponsoring this fucking idiot’s relationship with your sister. Yes, Issy. You could have studied medicine like you wanted. You could have continued your studies immediately you came to London but you didn’t. All because you wanted to be able to work and send money to your sister. And all these time, you have been sending money to her, you have been financing them both. The bastard! He had opportunities to tell you on the phone. He could have. He chose to keep quiet. He knew if he had, the money would have stopped rolling in. And his broke dad can’t afford to keep feeding his ass with the recession back home.”
What she felt now was different. An acknowledgment that her sister and the man she once loved shared a bond she would never experience. Acceptance meant humour could help her heal. Yes, humour. She let Biba laugh at pictures of him, pointing at his neck that she said was longer than a giraffe’s. “Your children would have had long necks, the man’s head reaches heaven.”
She let Biba blame her also for letting phone calls and pictures mean much more. “Girls like you fill in the blanks in their head. A man asks you what time is it you start to picture you and him together. He asks what you’re doing tonight you think he wants to go on a date. Then if he mistakenly tells you about his postgrad plans you start to picture him and you at the altar.”
She didn’t anticipate the tension that now tinted-over every conversation with her soon to be brother-in-law. Or awkwardness between her and her sister during conversations about the forthcoming wedding. The anger that crept out with the swiftness of a tiger every time he didn’t respond to her messages on time.
She wished her sister didn’t insist on carrying her along with their wedding preparations. And disliked that he had to authorise every small detail too.
I’m over you, Bolaji. We were not even an item. Please tell my sister the colours she picked are lovely. She hesitated. Drew breath to stop her fingers from adding, the colours you picked.
You two will have a lovely day. Do all the planning, I’m happy for you. She typed instead.
Thank you. Please don’t forget to send the money for the events place. Your sister is counting on you.
The house phone had started ringing before she put her phone down. She brushed her hair quickly. Hoping that Chib would surprise her; do something for the benefit of someone else. The girls that he dated were not the type that called house phones. They were not the type that would want to speak to his mother. Not as if he knew a house line existed in the house before she started work.
On her second day, she fetched the cordless phone from underneath a pile of magazines with scantily clad women. “Oh,” he had exclaimed. “That’s the thing that has been making that annoying sound.”
The phone had stopped and started ringing again by the time she finished applying make-up to her face. She didn’t hesitate this time. “Hi.”
“Hi beautiful girl,” the owner of the voice sounded busy and yet attentive at the same time. Whoever the caller thought picked up the phone –the beautiful girl –had to be important. She knew it was Obinna on the line. His voice was more forceful than his brothers’. A strong, baritone voice. It sounded like it came from the deepest part of the gullet. Consonants and vowels stringing together slowly. Patiently. As if its owner knew how to wield them to make people listen. To make them remember.
Despite sounding self-assured and authoritarian with the way he asked questions about his mother’s health, she didn’t think he was the type to call a woman he had never met beautiful. Obinna was not Chib.
“Hi, it’s Isio.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were Annabel. I didn’t know it was you, Isio.” He sounded like someone trying not to laugh. She could hear another man’s voice. A loud voice, laughing and asking how he could have mistaken someone else’s voice for his daughter’s. “My business partners are unbelievably noisy and nosy. Let me move away so you can hear me.”
“How is work?” She asked after a few unsteady heartbeats. Waiting for him felt suspenseful. Catching her reflection in the mirror, the shy smile on her face, did not help. She looked like young girl in the presence of an older man she fancied.
“Work is fine, thanks. How are you? I hope you are not working too hard? My daughter said she doesn’t want to work in future if she has to work hard like you.”
“I’m not working too hard, don’t worry.” Something about that voice or perhaps his concern for her welfare like the last time he called gave her the warm, fuzzy feeling that only came with pay days. He sounded happy to be on the phone with her. She tried not to giggle. “Will you be back soon? Annabel is missing you.” It would have been unprofessional to say she asked because she wanted to know when they would meet.
“We are in the UK at the moment. Idriss, Miles and myself have a meeting with some investors. God willing, I will be home tomorrow morning. We can meet in the evening if you are not too tired after your shift at the hospital.”
It surprised her that he remembered. A few days back when he called to speak to his mother, Isio mentioned her morning hospital shift.
She liked Queen Victoria hospital on her first visit. Getting to work on the children’s ward, reassuring worried parents, settling restless kids were not what she would have done as a doctor. But she loved her job. And she had long accepted that she would always be a nurse.
“I want to thank you. For all you are doing for my mum and my daughter… I know you only get paid for my mum.” She could hear a voice over his. The loud voice from earlier. Telling him something about a conference call. “Sorry, I have to go back in. Please can you take extra care of my mum today. I know you finish early, it’s Saturday.”
“I will, don’t worry.”
“It’s the third anniversary of Emeka’s death today. Our mother has never been the same since it happened. Please, darling, look after her.
Mrs Okadigbo was wiping her face with wet wipes when Isio walked into the room. Slumped under her thick blanket, she appeared quite frail. Not the healthy, chubby cheeked, woman in the pictures plastered all over the house.
She waited for her to sit up before placing the bed tray on her lap. In the middle of the tray were a bowl of pap and a spoon. Pap lightly sprinkled with sugar. No splashes of milk on top. Isio preferred hers swimming in milk. She imagined the older woman once did too before she lost her taste buds and the little things that made life enjoyable to cancer.
“Mummy, you look lovely this morning.”
Chib gained his good looks from his mother. The same plush, smooth skin tone and wide eyes. Mrs Okadigbo’s beauty showed through her frailness and almost bare head when they met.
The only picture of their father in the house told her as much as she had guessed. Average looking man, plump with an air of authority. The pictures on Annabel’s phone were not that clear but they showed Obinna as a cross between his parents.
She saw his mother observing her and hoped she wasn’t smiling.
“You are in a good mood this morning, my dear.” The woman commented, bringing the spoon up with barely anything in it.
“I’m happy that at least you are eating.”
Her tactfulness worked, Mrs Okadigbo gulped down two spoons of pap.
“Oh, I forgot. Your favourite son called, ma. He said he will be back tomorrow.”
“Thank God.” She put her spoon down and touched her chest. “I have missed him. Even Annabel is walking around like she is quarrelling with someone. I just hope this boy will take it easy with work, enh. This is why Angel and him did not work. The fiancée will be here and him he is travelling from one country to the other.”
“Some things don’t work, Mummy.” It was hard for her not to say Angel’s decision to hit Obinna’s daughter in front of him was perhaps why the relationship ended.
“I just want one of them to settle down.” She sighed and passed the tray over to Isio. “Now that Ifeanyi has left the girl that destroyed his marriage.”
“He has?” The woman worried more about Ifeanyi than his brothers and sister. Talking about how his marriage ended every morning the same way she did pleasant memories.
“Yes, he has. What do you expect eh? You want him to stay with a girl who he found out he didn’t father her daughter? After this girl close eye and watch him leave his wife. She could have confessed before the wife disappeared to Germany. No, she didn’t.”
Isio stared at the bowl. “Let me make you toast, Mummy. Please. Then I can get your injection.”
“If you promise to stay tonight. You don’t even have to do much. I just want to look nice tomorrow. And I want this house to feel homely for Obinna’s arrival.”
“Okay, I will stay. If you promise to stop worrying.”
She sighed. The type of sighs that came out of her every few minutes when blasts of chemotherapy sessions and recurring infections made Isio worry about her.
“I will stop worrying when my children are happy and settled. When Ifeanyichukwu goes back to his wife. When Obinna remarries. When Lotachi finally brings home a man we can say his name. Or which one is Azebertek again? What kind of a name is that?” She sighed for a second time. “Chibuzor’s one pass prayer. Only deliverance can save him. All this because I let their father treat me the way he did.”
“You can’t blame yourself, ma.”
“I spent years studying psychology, my dear. I know what is wrong with them. Or how do you explain Obinna’s refusal to date anyone after his wife left him. I had to force Angel on him. Only for him to be telling me the girl is too clingy. She likes him too much. What kind of nonsense is that? He would step out of the room as soon as they were alone. Mba, that is not the way to get a wife.”
“These things happen.”
“Promise me you won’t let a man treat you the way I got treated. That kind of beginning affects the children. Obinna and his brothers and sister looked happy. But I knew deep down they were not. They knew there was no female student of their father that he didn’t sample or tried to sample. They heard all the nagging and fighting. No wonder they don’t want to settle down.”
Isio fell asleep, exhausted, her phone in her hand. She wanted to ring Biba to let her know she wouldn’t come home for a second night. But having been busy all day, chopping vegetables, grilling and frying different types of meat whilst Mrs Okadigbo sat in a dining chair she dragged into the kitchen for her, she couldn’t.
It proved problematic to leave the older woman’s side. Chib loitered around the house, his eyes roving. As Annabel chose to stay in her room to rest, Isio had no choice but to stick with the matriarch of the house.
It was the strong aftershave in the bedroom that woke her. She had not been able to fall into the kind of deep sleep Biba liked to call dead people slumber since her father died. Those horrific months in her Aunty’s house did this to her.
The room was dark. Yet she could make out the figure of a man getting closer. She had planned to lock the door but could not remember doing so.
Isio threw her phone at the culprit, jumped out of bed and turned on the lamp. “Don’t you dare try anything with me.”
“Like what?” The man, who had his head in his hands looked as if he wanted to yell at her.
He wasn’t Chib. She didn’t have to ask him who he was. He looked like the man whose picture she had seen in Annabel’s photo library. The one she called Daddy.
Knowing her salary at the hospital would not cover her bills and her sister’s wedding, she started to apologise.
“I’m sorry. Please, I really need this job.”
He rubbed the side of his face. “I’m guessing you are my mother’s nurse?”
“I didn’t expect to find you here. And I was trying hard not to wake you. I wasn’t trying anything.”
“I know. I’m sorry. Can I take a look at your head? Did I hurt you?”
“No, thanks. I don’t want to die today.” He picked up her phone from the floor and showed her the crack on the screen. “I bet your phone is wishing it doesn’t have to go back to you.” Passing over the phone to her, a smile appeared on his face. “Please handle with care. Or if you want to throw it, make sure I’m out of the country.”
He was chuckling, studying her. She wished she had worn something better to bed. Not her conservative housewife style nightie that only left her face, neck and arms uncovered.
He appeared a decade and half older than Chib with a bearded face and a thickset, muscular build. Tall, although not as tall as his brother. His skin wasn’t as fair as his brother’s either. It was the colour of shelled almonds.
“Where are my manners? It is lovely to meet you at last Isio.”
“You too …”
“You can call me Jay. Only my family and friends from way back call me Obinna.”
They heard Chib’s voice from downstairs enquiring what the noise was.
“My ever-efficient brother. It is a good thing you were not waiting for him to come and save you.”
“Don’t go in your room, bruv.” Chib raised his voice. “Issy dey there.”
Obinna grinned. “Did I tell you how efficient he is.”
“Let me get my things together. So you can have your room back.”
“Don’t be silly, I’m not going to let you sleep next to Annabel. She kicks in her sleep. Stay here. I will bunk with my bro.” He opened the first drawer of the dressing table and picked up a black diary. “Enjoy your sleep. We can talk in the morning. Am I okay to wake up my mother?”
She nodded. “What if you need your things from your room?”
“I won’t make the mistake of coming in again,” he smiled. “My bags are downstairs so it’s all good. Goodnight Isio.”
“Goodnight,” she settled back in bed as he left the room.
She knew she wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep for a while. His voice stayed with her. And even when she closed her eyes, she could still hear it.
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