The following days were hazy. She dreamt of half-naked masquerades and of rotten corpses. Woke up to her body having heated arguments with nurses and doctors. It felt like some else had taken possession of her, making her cry when there was no reason to cry. And scream when there appeared to be no cause. She was not sure what she was doing in a hospital, plugged to machines that watched her. Observed by people whose eyes tore through her.
One afternoon she woke up to a head that didn’t feel fuzzy. Fausat was sitting beside her, blabbing words in between sobbing. Her words didn’t make sense but Abike listened hoping they would help her find her way out of this maze she had stepped in.
“I know you can hear me. The doctors said they have… sectioned you so that you won’t hurt yourself anymore. They said they have to take you to Mariam Ward tomorrow morning. I know you will fight this…illness because mental illness is not your portion. Your children need you, iyawo wa. We were only trying to help you. We wanted to help you with the children. Now, look how you are. Aah, Abike, when I saw you like that, lying on the floor, my legs gave way under me. I thought you were gone. But I thank God that Wale asked me to come and check on you. The Abike I know would never leave her children. I know this is not you.”
“Wale is with the children because he can’t face this but he asked me to tell you to fight this for Saheed’s sake. He said Saheed would want you to get well for the children.”
Fausat, Wale and the children were not waiting at the car park the day Abike left hospital. She had been told her children and their cousin had gone on holiday to Spain with Fausat. She didn’t expect Wale either because of the vile things she’d accused him of.
Reinforced, thanks to the hours of slow but consistent sessions of psychotherapy, the lonesome feeling did not dampen her spirits. A friendly taxi driver drove her back home.
Although one of the nurses on the ward told her three weeks ago that her sister-in-law wanted to come and see her, she had said no. She couldn’t contemplate facing her after finding out she tried to leave her children without a mother. But when she got home, she saw that the woman still wanted to be there for her. Perhaps Wale too. Her fridge was stocked to the brim. The living room smelt fresh and the landline worked – a sign that they had paid her bills too.
The first thing Abike did was ask for a visiting order so that she could go and see him. The order arrived three days later.
He didn’t look like her Marvin. His once muscled body had been replaced by this shrunken frame with cold eyes. His skin was almost sallow. He had grown a beard. Perhaps that was what made him seem so different.
“You are here. How are you?” He muttered as if he wasn’t the cause of the miseries that had plagued her family these past months.
He was her husband. The man she once loved. So, why did she feel like the man in front of her was a stranger? Was it because they were in a room full of men like him? Men fed up of waiting for their court dates, seeming to cheer up, when sighting their visitors – mostly women. Perhaps it was the oddness of sitting on opposite sides of one table and the eyes of the two prison officers observing the room.
What happened to the feeling she bore for the man that took her bowling every fortnight, and carried her into their home when they got married?
“I’m glad you came.” He smiled.
The smile didn’t thaw the orb of frostiness between them. It stayed.
Her eyes fell on the woman on the opposite table with a frantic toddler on her lap. “I shouldn’t have come…”
“No, please wait.” Marvin’s voice had a desperate tone to it that repulsed her. His gaze was having a similar effect.
Abike tightened her grip on her bag’s straps. “Why did you do it? Why did you hurt Tania and your own stepdaughter?”
“I didn’t force myself on Folu.”
The way his mouth curved to shorten her daughter’s name made her nauseous. She had promised herself she wouldn’t cry. That was what worried her before. Now, it was the rage taking over her with rapid precision that worried her. “You are ill, Marvin!”
“I loved her. She understood me. We both know you didn’t love me like you loved your dead husband.”
“She is a child. A thirteen year old.”
“I couldn’t help it. I wanted to be with her. She was the reason I noticed you that first time.”
Her psychologist’s words came back to her. He had insisted that seeing him might not be easy when she told him she needed to look at her husband’s face to confirm he hadn’t been swapped with an evil clone. ‘He might say things about him and your daughter that might upset you and impact on your relationship with her.’
“I actually came here to tell you I’m free of you.”
He stared at her like she had just announced she was joining a nunnery.
“Yes, I’m free of you. My lawyer will be in touch with my divorce papers. I won’t come back here, Marvin, but I guess I don’t have to wish you a nice life because it won’t be nice. You are going to continue to be miserable. Alone, unloved and sad. When you leave here you will be a registered sex offender who can’t live any semblance of normal life. Everyone out there knows what you have done and what you look like. You will never be free.”
She stood up holding herself straight as she did so, glad for the red lip gloss and the Fashion Fair foundation she had forced her hand to apply this morning.
“You know what,” he sneered, “if you really loved me, you would have stood by me through all this. It isn’t like I could control myself.”
She got a phone call from Fausat saying they were back on Sunday. The next day, Abike took the train to her sister-in-law’s house, expecting her children to run into her arms.
Her daughter did not show her face. Leke had remained seated on the sofa, his eyes darting around the room, trying to avoid focusing on her, as if two horns had sprouted from her forehead. Abike was forced to sit in the kitchen with her sister-in-law who chipped red paint off her fingernails whilst explaining that Foluke had gone for a study session. Torn between gratitude that the woman kept her suicide attempt a secret from her children, and envy that she seemed to have been a better mother to them, she stayed mostly quiet.
“She missed a lot of school.” Fausat forced her eyes away from her nails. “That is why she and her cousin are frequenting the library.”
Before leaving, she hugged Leke, marvelling at how ungainly he’d become with his lean hands and long neck. She’d only been gone for a few weeks. A few weeks that felt like many months holed up in a foreign planet. Fausat promised to bring the children to see her on Friday, although it didn’t go unnoticed how her sister-in-law didn’t meet her eyes when she said this.
When she got back, her CPN, a community nurse –whose empathising personality reminded her of Saheed’s big-heart – explained that her children would have to decide if they wanted to come back to live with her.
“What do you mean? They are my children. I want them home,” Abike insisted.
“Now Abby…” the CPN began, her hand dragging blonde locks away from her face whilst the other held her water bottle.
Abike had asked her to call her Abby because the woman couldn’t wrap her lips round her name, calling her Abiku once or twice.
“Your children’s wishes count. That is what the law says. You have to be patient and let them decide if they want to come back. Don’t rush things. Remember how ill you were?”
She would never forget how bad things were. The hazy days, yes. But the wild days, when she woke up at one in the morning to bake a cake for Saheed’s birthday, when she saw shadows at the window trying to come into her house and she took out her bible to battle with them, the heaviness that sat around her for days at a time and refused to shift – how could anyone ever forget?
On Friday afternoon, no one knocked on her door. Abike stared at the phone for a long time willing it to ring. It didn’t.
When Foluke called to speak to her on Tuesday, the girl had gone quiet when Abike asked when they would come back home.
She let her gaze shift to the silver-framed pictures of her children on the cabinet. And then slowly she moved away from the window ledge – she didn’t want to think of how much she was missing them today. She peeled off the plastic tablemats from the dining table. She had cooked Foluke’s favourite; jolof rice, slowly cooked with fresh fat tomatoes and diced onions, with ripe plantain fried to a yellow-gold colour – the way her princess preferred them.Cleaning the rug earlier, she ran the hoover mouth over her foot too distracted to see clearly.
Her phone beeped. She knew what the text message said before opening it.
It was Fausat messaging to say they wouldn’t be able to visit today. Something had come up.
As she scooped the jolof rice into Tupperware containers for the fridge and binned the plantain cuts, she tried to picture Saheed and the children at Hartley Park. She would occasionally walk there with them. On rare Saturday mornings, she didn’t have to do the food shopping.
Images of them on their first holiday at Butlins in Bognor Regis came back to her too. Saheed would toss the children in the pool one after the other, stopping to wave to her at times. She read chick-lit novels on the sun-lounger, dreaming of the future he promised them. A future where they would fly business class to St Lucia, or perhaps for a summer break to the south of France, in one of those five-star hotels on the coast of one of those picture-perfect beaches she’d seen in women’s magazines.
A knock on the door forced her to the present. She took her hands out of the tepid water in the sink and dried them, hoping Foluke had decided to surprise her. Her actions were fast but for some reason, she saw herself moving too slowly. She panicked. Patience wasn’t a virtue Foluke had learnt or inherited. Abike knew she wouldn’t wait. So she dropped the tea towel and ran to the door, her hands half-wet. Nearly tripping over the tip of the carpet, she persevered and reached the door. She opened it but there was no one there. A shrill laughter reached her ears from below. She looked over the banister and saw the skinny heads of three boys running off into the block adjacent to the building.
“Crazy nigga,” one of them piped before they disappeared from view.
She gathered herself back inside slowly and continued tidying up the house, although there was barely anything left to tidy. The sink got scrubbed twice. The surface wiped twice. All because she didn’t want to think about the man that picked up her life like it were a sack and then turned it upside down.
Her CPN told her yesterday that moving from the flat and the area, would improve things for her. There would be no harsh reminder on every corner. Her children too, would probably come down to see her and perhaps move back in with her. The children’s social workers and the school were optimistic about their future together.
So, why did her life feel bleaker?
She had picked up her house phone yesterday because Leke often called her on it. It was Mosun. As they hadn’t spoken to each other for a while, she had chosen to be polite and stayed on the phone to hear the lady go on about how it wouldn’t be appropriate for her to show up in church yet.
“Everyone in church is still talking about your terrible…terrible ordeal. It was me and Fausat that found you at your house. She came to my house to see if I had a spare key. Then I heard you went to that… hospital. I told Pastor Ike and a few others so they could pray for you. I hope you don’t think they are gossiping. We all just want to stay close to the story so we can help you. Brother Moses said you should come back to church. But Anita, the pastor’s young sister screamed at him, saying what will happen if you run mad in church and attack the children. Pastor’s wife agreed, too, saying madness is not a curable illness. But shebi, your drugs are helping, abi you still feel crazy?”
A few seconds went past before she could gather enough courage to put her thoughts into words. “You want to stay close to the story?”
“Yes dear. Yes…”
“How about Anita’s story?” she interrupted her friend. “Do you know I saw a married member of the church come out of her apartment two months ago? I would have told you Mosun but it happened the day Marvin was arrested.”
“Yeepa, isn’t Anita just twenty years old. Okay, tell me bestie. Which brother did you see coming out of Anita’s apartment?”
“Your husband,” Abike said. The guilt expected for keeping the news to herself for so long did not materialise. And when Mosun started screaming on the other end, she put the phone down, happy to be rid of a friend that spent more time being her foe.
Abike’s restless feet woke her up at dawn the next morning. In the past when she had a job, she would have gone back to sleep.
She put the TV on and watched the early morning news. A pre-recorded debate followed, politicians fighting each other about immigration. “We don’t want any more immigrants,” a man in a blue suit yelled. The frustration on his face reminded Abike of one of the patients on the psychiatric ward, Bongi, a young girl who would bite chunks out of her hand on bad days. On good days, she would fetch Abike colourful celebrity magazines. It was on one of those good days that Bongi told her how she started to feel unwell after her lawyer told her how much it would cost to fight the termination of her student visa. Her visa had gone with her university’s revoked license. Bongi, along with the other international students who had failed to find new universities, were to leave for their countries or wait to be forcefully removed.It was around that time she discovered a baby was growing inside her. One gifted her by her ex. Abortion had seemed like her only option. Dark days followed which culminated in her eventual breakdown.
A breakfast of coffee and bran flakes curbed her hunger after she turned off the TV. Bed called after. She answered not feeling motivated enough to fight it.
Loud knocks woke her a few hours later. The boys were back with their taunting and jeering. She wanted to go back to sleep, so she donned her dressing gown and painted an angrier look on her face this time.
When she opened the door, Leke was standing there. He didn’t wait for her to speak. He stepped forward and wrapped her in a warm embrace, whispering the words, “I am back, Mummy,” over and over again until Abike started to let herself believe it. The tears on her face felt real, so she couldn’t have fallen asleep and waltzed into a dream.
When he let go, she noticed Fausat standing a few feet away holding a blue, travel bag. There was no one else there.
“Where is my princess?” She turned back to Leke. “Where is your sister?”
Leke’s tears started to slide down his trembling face even before he opened his mouth. “I’m sorry Mummy, my sister is gone.”