Abike watched her children tuck into their chicken-mayo sandwiches. Her son ate as if he hadn’t noticed she was still in her pyjamas. As if it was normal for her to serve them cold sandwiches for their dinner.
Her daughter did not take bites out of her sandwiches the way her son did. She picked up her food with the slowness of someone that wasn’t hungry.
Earlier, Leke asked if his stepfather was back and his question had met with a lukewarm, “I will tell you later.”
Right now, as she searched for how to start the conversation, groping in a blank mind, she knew it would be harder than the police liaison officer, Cindy told her it would be before she left.
“But you have to have that discussion.” Cindy had said. “You need to talk to your daughter. Bring her to the station if you can’t.”
She had nodded, wiping her face again. “Could she be lying?” She was referring to Tania’s allegation that Marvin assaulted her in her home. Her parents were at work. They had left her at home in bed because she had a sore throat. The girl had let him into the flat because, as the DCI explained, he was always kind to her. He had her number, spoke to her often.
Cindy had paused in the doorway, “There is enough evidence to charge him for the systematic grooming and the eventual assault. I’m so sorry Abike. I wish I could tell you different.”
Did Marvin groom Tania? What exactly did the police officers mean when they used the word grooming? Yes, he was always kind to her. Treated her with the same meticulous care he treated her children with. He had taken Leke and Tania – whose friendships started when they were toddlers – to the cinema during the school holidays. He hosted Leke’s birthday party at Rough Dungeon and that same day Tania’s father and he exchanged numbers. Nothing about the way he spoke to any of the children worried her. If anything, some of the parents at the party joked that she married him because of his parenting skills.
“When will he be released from the police station Mum?” Foluke’s voice brought her back to the present. The girl had stopped eating. Her fingers linked as if they depended on each other to exist.
She exhaled a long sigh that heaved with her shoulders. “I really don’t know.”
“What’s up mum?” Leke dropped the half eaten sandwich in his hand back on the plate.
The children’s eyes were on her but it was the anxiety in her daughter’s wider ones that worried her.
“Does he have a lawyer, Mum?”
“I don’t know Folu.”
“Why are you not bothered Mum? He is your husband.”
Tears trailed down Foluke’s chubby cheeks. Abike wanted to slap the tears away. Above this, was the need to slap away the fear that the police officers left her with. The fear that made her limbs heavy and floppy. Her heart didn’t feel better either. It was beating so fast, every beat reducing her to a nervous, fragile version of herself.
Loud knocks on the door came at the right time. Seating any longer would have drained her. Her children’s questions and gloom faces were not helping. Neither were Mosun’s calls and visits but she needed to get off the seat and feel blood rush through her.
And here her friend was again – probably with a pot of egusi this time.
Abike opened the door to find the two people she thought would never come to her door again: Peter and Liz, Tania’s parents. Liz’s eyes were as red as the ones she herself had spotted in the mirror staring back at her this morning. The woman’s hands were wrapped around her front as if she too was having trouble controlling her limbs.
Peter did not seem to have trouble controlling any part of him. His eyes did not mask their anger. Her hand – the right one that she had completely lost control of— pushed the door before she could stop it. Peter wedged his booted foot in between the frame and door.
“You haven’t said sorry.”
His voice boomed across the room as he barged in, sending the children running towards her as she moved into the lounge.
“I’m sorry Peter. I promise you, we are in shock too…” Abike felt one of her children’s hand on her back.
“You are in shock?” He moved closer to her. His face so close to her his breath fanned her face. “Do you know that Tania hasn’t slept since it happened? Do you know that we can’t sleep either because it happened in our home, where we thought she would always be safe?”
“I’m really sorry. Please don’t do this in front of my children.”
“You haven’t told them, have you?” Peter roared, turning around briefly to look at his wife whose lips had started trembling, taking in the spread on the dining table on his left before returning his stern face to Abike and her children. “You are here enjoying a meal with your children when my wife and child haven’t eaten since yesterday. You should be in prison for bringing that man into our neighbourhood. Yeah, you should be! When Tania called me at work yesterday and told me our neighbour attacked her, I thought she was telling me he physically assaulted her…that he slapped her or something. Anything but what he did!”
“Peter please.” Liz walked into the room, wiping her face with one hand and tapping her husband’s arm with the other. “Our daughter needs us.”
“What is he talking about Mum?”
Abike heard Foluke’s voice behind her. It was more of a scream.
Desperate for Peter to stop, she called his wife’s name. The woman was the first person that spoke to her when she joined the residents of Hartley Street. Saheed had been the only black property-owner on the street back in those days. He encouraged her to make friends. Dismantling the feeble excuses she made. Here she was now, needing the woman’s help.
“My Mum wants you to leave.” Leke stepped forward. His little frame was no match beside Peter’s hunky frame.
“Your mum should never have brought that fucking bastard here.” Peter’s face oozed sweat. His cheeks were the colour of ripe strawberries as he brushed away his wife’s hand which had gripped his wrist. “If she hadn’t brought him here then he wouldn’t have talked his way into our home so he could rape our daughter.”
“Mum? What is he talking about?” Leke turned his face to his mother.
The boy looked as if he was going to collapse. His sister ran towards the hallway. She knew her daughter was running to her room but her legs just wouldn’t follow.
Peter’s tears were visible on his face as his wife tugged at his shirt. He turned to her and the two headed towards the door.
She wiped her face with the back of her hand as her daughter turned her back to her again. The DCI had suggested that the children speak to a child psychologist. Partly due to social service’s intervention, she had agreed and kept the children home to prepare them for the meeting later. It wouldn’t help the situation at school because as Mosun told her, teachers at the school were already talking. Mosun, a clerk at the school advised that the children be kept off school. The last thing they needed was for the whole world to find out.
“Foluke, why would you not want to go and see a psychologist that can help? Or is there something that you are hiding from me?”
Her daughter jabbed her head closer to the wall.
The last of Abike’s patience ebbed away from her as she tried to ease herself into a comfortable position on her daughter’s bed. “Do you think I like this…murky situation Foluke? Do you think I like what’s happening?”
“You are happy he is not here.”
“You are not missing him.” Foluke turned to her mother, her mouth curved away from her. “You readily agreed with the police he is a criminal. Is that how you treat people you love?”
“They have evidence.”
“That they showed you?”
Abike’s mouth moved without uttering any intelligible words. She sighed and rested her back on the headboard. Her daughter’s attention had shifted away from her again.
Was there even any use convincing her that he had done wrong when she wouldn’t stop fighting his corner.
“If you tell me what is going on, I will cancel this appointment.”
Abike didn’t think she could ever feel worse pain, than the pain of that day when her uncle pushed her down on her grandmother’s bed. Not even when Mama Iseyin blamed her saying she had caused it by wearing a wrapper when she knew she was alone in the house with a man. Not even when Mama Iseyin made her swear that she wouldn’t tell her parents. Until sitting on her daughter’s bed, she waited to hear. Waited to hear and hoped that the same fate hadn’t befallen her daughter. Foluke played with her plaits and brushed imaginary fluff off her pyjama pants. Abike waited until her own lips started to tremble. She wasn’t ready to hear.
Later on, having gained nothing, Abike made her way to the dining area where she expected to see her son.
She found him instead in the kitchen bearing the same look he had on his face the day he ate the family size chocolate in the fridge. He had his phone in his hand.
“What are you doing son?” She spotted the cereal bowls she left out earlier. They were clean.
“Don’t be angry Mummy,” Leke shuffled from one leg to the other. “I called Uncle Wale and Daddy’s sister. I told them what our stepdad did.”
“You did what?” Her limbs started to flail again at the mention of Saheed’s people. This was the last thing they needed. His family would crucify her.
Leke trembled, “I’m sorry Mummy. I only called them because you and Folu were shouting and I was scared.”
“It’s okay, baby.” She pulled the boy into her arms. From the window, she could see Peter, Liz and Tania outside of their flat’s door. Peter had a travel bag in his hand. From the third or fourth time since it happened, Abike wished she could run away from it all.
Saheed’s family would make her life unbearable.