Abike stared at the red, plain clock in her room willing sleep to come. She had climbed into bed around midnight, utterly exhausted. Like last night though, her mind simply refused to settle. She couldn’t chase thoughts of Saheed and his family away.
Saheed dreamt too much. He dreamt of a future where his family, parents and siblings would live comfortable lives. He filled her head with his dreams. At first, she had egged him on, until she started to see how he was killing himself bit by bit each day, trying to provide for them. He would attend his post-graduate lectures at the university and then head off for twelve-hour shifts in a call centre.
After she found him asleep and nearly submerged in the bathtub one night, she’d begged him to reduce his workload. She told him they would cut back on the luxuries. His plan for them to have a business-class holiday would be put on the backburner. But as he explained to her – and she already knew this – it wasn’t just their family they had to think of. The children and her could learn to manage. Wait for them to win the lottery before actualizing those dreams. But his siblings’ school fees were necessities. His parents’ medical bills could not be grouped as luxuries either.
“You know I have seven brothers and two sisters, Abike. Eight men and boys if you count Wale, my cousin.” He had paused to stifle a yawn and then rubbed his face. “Although I have succeeded in bringing two of them here, the rest need me. Please Iya yi, I just need to do some more shifts. I promise I will cut down on my workload in the New Year.”
That night, when he put his arms around her and joked that she knew what would ease his stress levels, she did not smile. And when he kissed the base of her neck, asking what was wrong, she didn’t answer. She slid her hands under his vest and helped him undress, refusing to let her fingers trail the tight curls of hair that fought to escape the confines of his briefs. And it wasn’t until he was asleep – after a few quick thrusts which failed to leave her in that euphoric state that sex with him usually did – that she released the sigh from the back of her throat. At that moment she hated the long-held tradition of her people and the demands it placed on the eldest sibling. Why should Saheed be expected to cater for his younger siblings? We have our own family now. She had wanted to wake him. But she didn’t. He wouldn’t have listened. His stubbornness – the only flaw he had – would have made him stand his ground.
Abike was about to clock-off from her cashier’s job the day she got a phone call from a strange number. It had two extra digits more than the norm. She knew as soon as the woman told her she was ringing her from the hospital in Stratford. She knew he was dead. His car had veered off the icy road on his way to his work. Suggestions were whispered much later that he’d fallen asleep at the wheel. The nurses told her he died shortly after begging them not to call his wife. He didn’t want her to worry unnecessarily. Two scratches that looked like pink tattoos marked his head but there were no life-threatening gashes framing his body. He looked like her Saheed. That was why when they kept telling her that he died before they could send him upstairs for x-rays, she’d screamed at them until she passed out.
Abike took her young husband’s body back home. His cousin who doubled as his best friend, Wale, and sister, Fausat, travelled home on the same flight with her but their silence hadn’t prepared her for the treatment that would greet her at home in Lagos. It wasn’t obvious but it was there. It was there in the way her mother-in-law’s eyes followed her everywhere. It was there in the way Saheed’s nieces and nephews left little Leke and Foluke behind every time they went out to play bojiboji.
Abike made sure that Mosun was sat next to her when Wale and Fausat walked through the door. The hysteria expected from Fausat materialised in the form of a soothing hug that Abike welcomed with both hands. Wale did not hug her. He sat on the armchair closest to the door, watching her with cold eyes.
“I should have come to see you,” Fausat said sniffling. “If my brother was here he would be so disappointed in me.” She raised her outstretched palms upwards. “Aah, Saheed, please forgive me.”
“He will understand, Sister. You have work and your children, too.”
“The children! Foluke and Leke, how are they? Where are they, iyawo wa?”
“They decided to go to school today,” Abike nodded, willing her statement to sound true. The children did not want to go to school. She had pleaded with them to go in. When she spoke with Fausat on the phone last night and she insisted on coming to to see them, Abike knew it would be best not to have the children around.
“We should keep this situation amongst ourselves.” Mosun gave Abike a knowing look before her eyes fell on Fausat who was already nodding, the way people nod when conveying sympathy with agreement. “There is no need for our people back home to find out. This will not help anyone’s health.”
Abike sighed, happy that Mosun referred to Saheed’s parents’ health with care.
“Would she have told us if Leke did not call us?” Wale interrupted Mosun as the latter continued with her rehearsed speech.
He had straightened his back. His face did not seem that angry. As usual, apart from his eyes, his countenance showed his calm, collected self. But Abike knew him well enough to know what lay underneath.
These past few days had taught her that nothing mattered apart from her children. People would forgive her for her opinions and misdeeds. Her conscience wouldn’t let her be, if she ever let her children down again.
“I wouldn’t have called you, Wale.”
“Excuse me? Fausa, did you hear iyawo egbon?”
“I wouldn’t have called you because I haven’t thought about anyone but my children.”
“We are your dead husband’s relatives.”
“I know,” she screamed. “But there is nothing you can do. Do you think if you could wave a magic wand and take it all away, I wouldn’t have called you first? Do you think I would be in this flat hiding away? I would do anything to erase what has happened to us. The ones I know about and the ones I don’t.”
Not long after, Wale and Fausat left. They promised to be there for her and the kids if they ever needed anything. She took it as the sort of promises people make to be polite, even though Wale tried in the past to keep in touch with them. He had seemed to take more of an interest when he saw them at Tottenham four years ago, paying them the odd visit during school holidays and on Leke’s birthdays. Dropping off the boy’s first phone when he turned nine: a phone she refused to let him have until almost a year later.
Wale’s visits stopped when he saw Marvin at her dining table one afternoon carving the Sunday roast chicken.
She decided to go to the grocery shop on the way back from seeing Mosun off. Earlier, she had tried to get her friend to buy her some milk from the shop. Mosun refused, stating she would have to go outside someday.
The minute her hand touched the rusty handle of the shop’s door, she decided she wasn’t ready yet to face the world. The curious eyes of the Bengali shop owner popped into her head, finalising her decision for her as she headed back to her flat .
Wale’s sheet-white car came into view just before she reached the post box. Abike rushed over, worried that something had happened.
“Is everything okay? Have you dropped Sister Fausat off already?”
“I took her to the train station. She said she will catch the train back to Harlow,” Wale said as he alighted from the car. “I have to discuss something with you. Em… alone,” he added.
“What is it?” she asked when he kept staring at her stomach.
“Don’t be angry. Saheed would suggest this if he was here?”
“What is it? You are beginning to worry me.”
“How many months pregnant are you?”
He seemed taller, perhaps because he’d lost weight. He had mentioned that his new job was quite stressful before he left with his cousin earlier.
Had the stress of work addled his brain too? Why else would he ask such a question?
“I have a friend who is a doctor in Lagos. He can help you if it is what you want. I’m guessing you are too far gone to have it done the legal route here.”
“Help me with what? enh?” She could hear her phone ringing in her cardigan pocket. His dithering was beginning to irritate her.
“Help you get rid of it.”
“What is wrong with you? Have you lost it?” she started to walk towards the building and then changed her mind.
He was begging her to stop. Saying he was worried about them. She had heard his argument before from Mosun. Her friend told her it wouldn’t be easy to bring up the child of a paedophile. “What if he has touched your daughter, too?” Mosun had asked.
“I will pretend you didn’t say what you said for the sake of my children. And for Saheed’s sake too.” The rant would have continued if her phone’s continued ringing hadn’t forced her attention to it.
Abike retrieved the phone from her pocket. She tapped Accept on her phone immediately because of the number displayed on the screen. It was the children’s school.
“Hello,” a lady’s voice on the other end said. “Is this Folu’s mum?”
“Yes it is. Is she okay?”
“I’m afraid she fainted during PE. She has been taken to Saint Andrew’s Hospital.”