Each step Pero took towards Blackpool Pleasure Beach seemed to require four times the effort it usually did. Her legs felt weighed down as if shackles were ringed round them. Today, she didn’t appreciate the second glances she got from male tourists; the ones with swollen bellies and the beanpole lookalikes with rucksacks strapped to their backs.
She could do without the hectic promenade today. Amidst the bobbing heads and paddling limbs, there was barely any room to move. Blackpool usually heaved with thousands of visitors on Bank Holidays. She knew this, having lived there since she left Lagos two years ago ‘to make it big’.
But she didn’t want Emeka to see the cluttered bedsit she’d lived in since Aunty Kanyi threw her out of her house.
Wearing a nightie that Aunty Kanyi deemed too transparent the day that Aunty Kanyi’s son tried to force himself on her. According to her aunty, she was the Jezebel that tried to seduce her poor teenage son. Aunty Kanyi decided to overlook the fact that Ken her son was nearly twice Pero’s size at sixteen stone.
A child ran past her, clutching her candy floss. The child’s parents followed her as if they had all hatched from the same pod.
Pero tried to steady the beating in her chest by drawing longer breaths. Her jacket was a summer one that barely covered her big breasts, yet she felt hot. She slowed her pace knowing he would wait for her.
She wondered what her mother would call what she was doing. Would she call her a devil’s child for selling her body? Or would she call her a prostitute for doing what she’d done for Emeka when he had no intention of paying her bride price?
One thing she knew was that her mother would never understand that it was her crippling responsibility that drove her to this. Her McDonald’s part-time job stopped stretching beyond her share of the bedsit bills months ago. Extra shifts cover were no longer needed for the restaurant because the staff on maternity leave came back. Pero was left with her two shifts a week at slightly above minimum wage.
She’d taken a cleaning job at the market. Cleaning stalls before the traders arrived to open up. Her income still didn’t stretch enough. It didn’t matter if she munched on cheap salted crisps or buttered bread and walked past the bakery and the butcher’s, head bowed, all she could afford at the end of most months was £65 to send back home for her mother and five siblings.
Pero hurried to the Cayman Porsche as soon as she saw it. He had parked on Aylesbury Street just as they agreed. She hesitated when he jumped out of the car. He said a quick ‘hiya’ and then put her bag in his boot. He hurried back and opened the passenger door to let her in. Emeka’s wealth of good manners hadn’t surprised her when they met. She’d been told he was well-read and bred. But his good looks, she knew, she would never get used to. It was one of those things that was too obvious- not to be noticed-in someone that would still have charmed women if he wasn’t as attractive. She knew he knew what effect he had on women because he carried himself with subtle arrogance.
So why observe the niceties of etiquette then, she wondered. Good looks, fine background, high-flying career -she’d always thought – meant you didn’t need a splodge of good manners on top.
“Are you looking forward to this weekend Pero?” he asked, following his question with a grin that assured her he really wanted to know.
She told him she was looking forward to her sleep not being interrupted by the sounds of trains and rides. He smiled when she added that she wouldn’t miss her guitar-playing-neighbour’s noise at midnight. Although it was his feminine-sounding voice- that she once thought belonged to a cat- that was responsible for keeping her awake.
She noticed that Emeka’s smile was as wide as Peter’s. The day she’d left for England, Peter had hugged her and told her their dreams were about to come true. Ten months later, Peter was shot dead by the police. He’d been walking home late at night in an area being raided by armed robbers. Pero blamed herself when it happened. And every time she called home after, she was sure she could hear the accusations in her mother’s sobs. Every time her mother moaned about missing her son, all she could hear was –If only she’d sent them money, Peter wouldn’t have had to walk home that day from the university. Peter wouldn’t have given their mother his last nairas so that she could make his siblings ewedu and eba.
Emeka had stopped the car before she managed to drag her mind away from home. She followed him into the extended hallway of the detached house, begging her eyes not to gape this time- the way they had gaped the last time she was here.
His wife, Camille, was in the kitchen murdering what looked like steaks in a frying pan. She abandoned the steaks and sashayed to Pero.
“Darling you are here.” Camille kissed both cheeks before letting her slim hands cradle Pero’s stomach. “How is our baby doing in there?”
Pero didn’t respond quickly, because she was busy thinking about the good pieces of meat going to waste on the hob. Camille led her into the lounge as Emeka rolled up his sleeves and started to rescue his wife’s cooking.
Later on, as Pero tucked into steak, mash and chunky chips, ignoring the bowl of green salad Camille kept pointing at– she hoped the pounds that she’d sent back home last month was still keeping her family fed. Every time she put food in her mouth recently, a picture of her hungry little brother would pop into her head.
“We asked you to come and stay here because Em and I want you to put your feet up,” Camille interrupted Pero’s thoughts.
Her fork was pushing her coleslaw and poached salmon around the plate as if the meal had gone off. Pero wondered if that was how she kept her body trim. Not the twice a week gym sessions. As she covered her mash with peppercorn sauce she noticed Emeka watching her. She turned her attention back to his wife.
Camille’s brown eyes were probing her face. “We are grateful you are doing this, hun. We are just worried that you are not coping.”
Pero put her knife and fork down. “My friend went missing three weeks ago. I miss her…..but I’m not putting your baby at risk…”
“Camille wasn’t saying that,” Emeka interrupted. “We just need to do this after everything you have done for us, Pero. Stay here with us for the weekend and let us look after you.” His smile made her feel at ease.
She imagined they cared about her and that everything they’d done for her –including all the money they’d put in her account for expenses (because legally that was what they could call it) – she imagined it wasn’t because she was carrying their baby.
“You said she went out on a date and didn’t come back.” Camille had that look in her eyes again. The same look she had in her eyes when she questioned Pero about her genes.
“Yes,” Pero replied. That was what she’d said to the police when she called them to report her friend missing.
Nel was off to spend the evening with a man the last time she bade her goodbye. To do what she’d done for years to raise money to send back home ; sleep with men. This last part, Pero kept from the police.
Nel would not want people to judge her, hence Pero had lied through her teeth when people asked. She told a different lie to Nel’s parents, husband and children when she called them in Port Harcourt to break the news. But it wasn’t exactly a lie.
Nel went off to work and didn’t return.
That night, Pero did not sleep. Her belly- a huge reminder that she could not retrace her steps- kept her awake. The baby kicked most of the night as if it could sense her distress.
When Nel told her that a friend of one of her clients – a fertility doctor – was looking for a young surrogate to carry a couple’s baby, she hadn’t paid much attention. She was amused then horrified when Nel broached the subject the next day and asked her this time if she would consider been a surrogate. Whilst she tore spinach leaves for their supper Nel explained that the couple –a mixed-race husband and his black British wife- would like a black woman to carry their child. But none of the licensed surrogate’s profiles had appealed to them at the clinic. All she would be expected to contribute were her ‘eggs’ and ‘womb’. Nothing else.
Perhaps it was because her friend kept singing in a low tone about how she would be able to relocate to Nigeria with the money she could get. Or perhaps it was because her little brother took ill with typhoid fever that she agreed to meet Nel’s doctor friend. What she’d been unprepared for was seeing Camille and Emeka at the doctor’s office. She watched Camille’s glossed lips and the way she moved her manicured fingers in the air as she spoke, telling her how much she and her husband would like a child. And all she could think of was how soon she could get out of the office and its sanitised air. It wasn’t until Emeka started speaking, saying how much he would love to show his child the towns and villages he’d visited in Nigeria with his parents, that she started to empathise with them.
Following several tests and more meetings with the couple, she signed the contract with a trembling hand.
The day of the artificial insemination, Camille and Emeka picked her up for the procedure at the clinic. Although, it was Camille that did all the talking afterwards, a couple of times her eyes met his in the rear-view mirror. She’d wondered then what was going through his mind. But words lain unspoken between them for a while after.
Despite all the running and sit-ups she’d done in the hope that the procedure would fail, it was successful. And while Camille hugged her and shed tears, he still didn’t say much apart from ‘thank you Pero’. But she’d known then that he was far more grateful than his short phrase conveyed.
It was on Saturday night that she discovered he smoked. She’d gone to find him with the mug of strawberry tea that his wife made him. He was in front of the garage, leaning on the shutters.
“I will give up when the baby arrives,” Emeka said. The glint of his eyes barely visible behind the smoke that danced around for a while before the thin wisps dissolved in the autumn air.
He stubbed out the cigarette and accepted the mug from her. She was about to leave him to it when he asked if Nel was a “professional companion for men.” The way he voiced his question was polite, so polite that she found herself telling him the truth.
She raised her brows when he said he could understand how the dire economic situation in Nigeria could have driven her to it.
“My cousin lives in Lagos. He tells me how hard it is.”
She wondered where his cousin lived in Lagos, and if his problems were that he had to drive through the neglected roads and terrible traffic of inner Lagos to get to his upper class home in Ikoyi.
“I’m not sure you understand.” Pero’s words trailed off, her eyes taking in the arrangement of the houses on the close, with their trimmed lawns and tarmac driveways.
“You look at me as if I really don’t get it…..as if I’m from another planet.”
Pero did nothing to hide the expression on her face. Her family were the ones who hadn’t had it easy. Her father had slumped following a blow he received to the head, courtesy of their irate landlord. The latter was only owed two month’s rent. The manslaughter case didn’t reach court. Some said their landlord bribed the police to lose the case file. Some said it was her father’s brothers he bribed to drop the case. Her family thought they knew what poverty was before their father’s demise. They were wrong. Shortly after, her mother’s stall by the roadside close to their new home was demolished by officers of the Lagos State Government.
“Have you ever wondered why my parents are black and I’m mixed race?” Emeka chose that time to interrupt her.
He plonked his mug on the top of a deceased plant-bulb. “My parents separated after they moved down here from Enugu. Mum moved on with an Irish man. When Dad came back to ask Mum for another chance, she had no idea she was already pregnant… so she thought I was his until I was born…”
“What did your father do?” She felt she had to say something. Ask something.
“He agreed to raise me as his own. My biological father had already moved back to Ireland.” He rubbed his palms together, his eyes still holding hers. “My Dad forgave my mum, but I was never made to feel like his son. I think it would have been impossible anyway, physically. I have hazel eyes and fair skin and he is really dark.” A chuckle punctuated his last word. “I’m sure you can guess the questions my friends at primary school asked me when they saw my parents at the school gates.”
She moved closer to him. Unsure of what the protocol was when it came to patting men on the back.
“I had to work whilst attending uni. My brother didn’t. I was told to live on campus. It would help me become independent, dad said. My brother lived at home until a month before his wedding day. But I didn’t let having a father that couldn’t be my dad affect me. I got my shit together and made it on my own.”
Pero was about to apologise for judging him when the baby kicked.
“May I?” he asked as soon as she’d blurted it out.
She was still thinking about it when he placed his outstretched palm on her stomach. Their eyes- his hazel and happy and hers dark-brown and happy – met as the baby kicked again. Pero was taken aback by his happiness, so that when he heaved forward and kissed her, it took more than a few seconds before she realised what he was doing.
Part two coming up. Thanks for reading.