Richard waited for Grace to walk out of the church, before joining Lanre, infront of the pulpit. The church was empty after the service.
“What does sister Grace want Pastor?” Lanre asked.
Richard frowned. He was yet to get used to Lanre calling him Pastor in church. He knew better though, than to assume that Lanre did it to be former or respectful. He knew it was Lanre’s way of reminding him of his responsibilities.
“Desola is ill, Lanre. She has flu.”
Lanre wringed his face. “Desola is ill? Well, I think, she is just avoiding you because you asked Agnes to be your wife. It is plain for even a blind person to see that Desola wants to have your babies. Mate, you are the senior Pastor now. You can’t afford the sort of scandal doing the dirty with Desola will cause.”
Richard was glad, that Lanre didn’t know how late his advice was. Still, he felt restless.
“If Agnes kept her promise, I wouldn’t be in this mess. I told Agnes not to say anything to anyone. I wanted to tell Desola and my father-in-law myself. Did you see the look my father-in-law gave me when he left with the children?”
“I am sure that look has more to do with your ending up as the senior pastor. He wanted the position for himself. He is fed up with his deputy pastor role. Maybe you should just ask him to step down if he is not happy playing the part of a subordinate.” Lanre’s eyes darted after his pacing friend.
Richard stretched his hands towards Lanre. “He thinks, I have forgotten Eniola and moved on. I told Sister Agnes that we can’t think of getting married until next year. I wanted to sort everything out. If I wanted to court drama, I would have asked Desola to marry me…..”
“Your position as Pastor would have become untenable then.” Lanre interrupted him.
“Desola is a fine-looking girl. But, the sort of home she comes from is not the sort of homes Pastors’ wives come from. Agnes’s father is the founding Pastor of South Ministries in Cameroon. Desola’s father is an uneducated Alhaji with three wives. Agnes’s mother is a children’s advocate that manages a charity. When her husband is away, doing God’s work across the globe, she takes care of the running of their church. Desola’s mother is probably an illiterate, whose only talent revolves around cooking gbegiri and ilafun.”
“Stop it, Lanre.” Richard went to sit on one of the front chairs. “I didn’t make my decision based on family or social backgrounds. I made my decision, because of my children. I don’t need a wife. I ……had Eniola.”
Lanre opened his mouth as if to interrupt him, and then shut it again when Richard pointed an angry hand at him.
“Despite what you might say, I only need a mother for my children. Agnes has a teenage son, same age as Junior. She needs a father for that boy. She told me, when I went with her and James for his parents-evening, about how hard it has being for her raising him as a widow. Desola is good with the twins. But Junior only stops to listen to her because he wants to use that opportunity to harass her body with his eyes.”
“Well, atleast with Agnes’ extra-skinny body, the poor boy won’t be tempted.” Lanre muttered.
Richard heard him but assumed his friend didn’t want him to hear his comment. He went into the community centre’s kitchen and picked up his winter coat and bag. When he got back into the hall, Lanre had started putting each collected lot of chairs at the back of the hall. The community centre’s hall had served as the church for five years.
“Can you return the keys to the caretaker when you finish. I have to go to the flats.” Richard told his friend.
Worry hopped into Lanre’s eyes. He abandoned the chairs and walked towards Richard. “I hope it is the third floor you are going to at the flats, to see Sister Agnes? I know you like Desola. But ore, how could you have justified choosing a girl half your age as your wife. Would your congregation respect you the way they used to?”
Richard headed for the door. Lanre followed, his mouth, running faster than his legs. “No amount of coaching can get Desola to the stage, she should be at to marry someone like you. You don’t become a full blood Christian overnight. You and I can recite bible verses in our sleep because God called us before we were born. Do you not remember that Sunday service not so long ago when Desola was looking for Genesis in the New Testament during a Sunday service?”
Richard grinned because he could still remember the impatience visible on his father’s face during that quiet Sunday Bible service. Desola was a new face in their church then. He had had to leave the side of his father to go and help the new face find Genesis, wondering how she ended up past Galatians. Later, as he carried Taye to his car, Ife had dragged a shy Desola to him.
“Thank you broda mi jare. I couldn’t come to the bible service. My friend, Desola was just telling me she got lost in the Bible. She said you helped her.” Ife had then turned to Desola whose eyes were imploring all tactics in the book to avoid his. “Desola meet my brother-in-law, Uncle Richard. He is a wonderful man.”
Richard arrived at Grace and Desola’s flat at seven pm. He knew Grace would have to leave for her night shift at a nursing home. He wanted to talk with Desola on his own. He had being upstairs to Agnes’s flat. His aim was to tell her, it would be unwise for them (mainly her) to continue telling the whole world their plans, when his wife’s death was not yesterday’s news. In truth, he wanted to tell Agnes off. His son finding out from the meddlesome, Mrs Bradshaw during the service, that Agnes and he were to wed, left a nasty taste in his mouth.
But he couldn’t discuss much with Agnes when he got to her flat. Her teenage son, James, sat in the middle of the adults all through his stay, refusing to acknowledge his mum’s overdone winks.
Downstairs, on the first floor, Grace didn’t have much time to exchange small talk before she had to leave. Richard sat on the edge of the sofa. Desola’s body occupied half the length. He noticed the gauntness visible around the crevice of her neck. She had strapped a wool dressing gown over her night dress, but when she got up to get him a drink, he noticed that a few pounds had peeled off her frame.
“Desola please sit down. I will get the drink. I will make you a lemsip drink whilst am in the kitchen.” She collapsed on the sofa as he got the drinks ready.
As she sipped her drink, he found his voice.
“I am worried about you, Desola. Why didn’t you tell me you were this ill? Is this why you didn’t come to see me last Saturday? Could this be something worse like glandular fever?”
“I am not that bad. My GP told me I should feel better soon.” She told him after a series of coughs. Her chest sounded as if an imp was scraping the length and breadth with a grater.
Richard put his glass of orange juice down. The tartness of the drink had left a horrid sour taste in his mouth. He made himself a cup of sweetened coffee. He settled back on the sofa, close to where her feet were. As he raised the cup to his lips, he noticed her eyes were staring at the blank screen of the TV. Her face was plain, yet beautiful. Her long hair had being divided and plaited into four.
“I am sorry sweetheart. It wasn’t my intention to hurt you.”
“I don’t think Sister Agnes will be happy to hear you calling me sweetheart.”
“I feel terrible. I want you to get better.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. I am not ill because you proved yourself a man.” She said, staring at him. Her eyes showed her anger. It was harsher than her voice.
“I really like you. I know, we should never have slept together. I am sorry. I let you down. I am not going to excuse my behaviour…but those days after Eniola died were unbearable. At present, I can’t say things are better. My children miss their mum.”
“Are they ok?” She asked, enquiring of his children. A feeble smile installed itself on her face, when he told her they were fine. He would be driving down to Miles End at nine to pick them up.
“Can you ask Junior to bring the girls down tomorrow after school for a few minutes, I would like to see them.” She told him.
The sense of hopefulness that had started to radiate within him collapsed into smithereens.“So, you intend to keep me at bay now like some sort of dog, Desola?”
“I don’t like people who think I am inferior to them around me,” she sniped.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Desola’s eye did not meet his. “You used to ask me random questions about my family. My father’s job. His wealth. Random things.” She sat up. “It only occurred to me yesterday, that I was stupid to tell you anything about me. But, I told you, because I didn’t think you were a snub.” She put her drink on the table next to his.
“I have never looked down at you or your family.” He tried to defend himself.
A strange expression crept into her eyes. She wasn’t listening to him. “I didn’t tell you everything, anyway. My family like any other family has dirty secrets. For example, I didn’t tell you that my sister’s baby was fathered by my uncle. I didn’t tell you that the same uncle used to chase me round our sitting room, when I was a child.”
Her last sentence got all his attention. All the knowledge he had gained as a psychologist deserted him.
“I escaped him because my mother decided to send us girls to the boarding house of our school. But he still managed to get his hands on my sister.”
Her voice quivered. “I wish I told her, what he tried to do me? She would have stayed away from him.”
Her palms went to her face. He saw her shoulders heaving. When he pulled her closer to himself, she burst into tears. He let her stay in his arms and cry.
Although, she calmed herself after Richard got her some tissues, it was a few minutes before she spoke to him.“You can go now. You don’t have any reason to……” A cough cut her sentence midway. He ignored her and moved closer to her.
One of his palms encircled her nearest one. “I had no idea you were going through something like this. I am so sorry. If I knew, I would never have…..”
“You would never have touched me?” Her shaky voice tried to finish his sentence. “You might never have felt something for me, but….I… did.” Her tears started again. “I thought you….wanted to be with me, Richard. I know, it was too soon after your wife, but if you knew it was going to make you hate me in the morning, then why the hell did you sleep with me!” Her strained voice struggled to hold, when she uttered her last statement. But Richard guessed, the utterance was supposed to be more of a scream.
“I don’t hate you. It ain’t possible sweetheart. By the way, I didn’t choose Agnes because I thought she was better than you. No.”
She let her gaze hold his.
“You are beautiful, kind and caring. Any man that ends up with you will be proud. But, that man can’t be me because I can’t offer you what you need.”
“I am too old to take you to all the places you young ones like going to. You deserve a man that can give you all his time and energy. I have baggage. Sweetheart, I spent sixteen years married to the love of my life. I can’t wipe that of, like a slate and move on. I am always going to be inlove with her. The issues in our marriage will impact on my future relationships. Do you really want to start your life with a second-hand man like me? Promises are easy to make. But, when you break those promises in four or five years because you are fed up with the boring life an old man like me offers, who do you think will suffer more?”
“My children.” He answered his own question before adding. “I am sorry about what your uncle did to your sister. And, what he tried to do to you. But, you can’t blame yourself. Let me be there for you as a friend. Please.”
She shook her head.
His head did not acknowledge the response.“I am here if you want to talk about it.”
Her neck sank into her chest. Richard didn’t need his psychology training to tell him, she had shut the door again on him. She wouldn’t be letting him in, anytime soon. He went to her bedroom and picked up a blanket. He took the blanket to her and wrapped it round her. She had started shivering, so that her protests came out between clattering teeth. He rolled up his sleeves and went into the kitchen. The fridge was filled to the brim with food. As he picked out, two porcelain dishes from the rack, he heard more protests. The protests relented after he washed his hands and dished the food. Instead of the protests, he felt her eyes on his back as he plonked dish after dish in the microwave. Richard was happy her eyes were on his back. He knew he would be lost, if those eyes ever stopped looking at him.