Blinking back her tears, she adjusted her posture on the plain, dark-grey chair she was perched on in the interview room. DCI Strong jotted down notes whilst the other detective slammed questions freely at her as if she were Marvin himself.
She tried to remember what the duty solicitor said to her before the interview began. She tried, too, to ignore the whirring of the black tape recorder that DCI Strong had slotted a cassette into when the interview started.
Her efforts failed.
“I haven’t done anything wrong.” Warm tears trickled down her cheeks. Would it ever be all over? Marvin had seemed like the nicest man on the planet. He’d even waited until their fifth date before asking if he could kiss her.
“He didn’t behave like a paedophile, you know. He didn’t have it tattooed on his forehead so I had no idea,” she screamed.
“The way you had no idea that your first husband was arrested for sleeping with a fifteen year old girl in 1997?” The detective cocked his head forward.
She stayed quiet.
“Are you going to tell me you didn’t know? That you were simply an innocent woman that picked the wrong guy? How is it that you keep picking men who prefer children?”
“Saheed was not a monster,” she tried to stay calm. “He was just eighteen. He met the girl in a club and she told him she was eighteen. Isn’t that why the charges were dropped?”
Abike was nineteen when she met Saheed. That was why she failed to understand the seriousness of the story he narrated to her. She had only lived in the UK for a few months and knew nothing about the complicated age of consent laws he explained to her.
“Perhaps your husband got the girl to lie for him.”
“She told her parents and the police the truth. My husband didn’t do anything wrong.”
“That was exactly what you told my colleagues about your current husband.” The detective picked up a phone bagged in a transparent bag. “For the benefit of the tape, the suspect is being shown evidence lot HA101.” He held the phone up.
Silence followed his question again. Yes, the bagged phone looked exactly like Marvin’s second phone. Apart from its brighter whiteness, it was similar to his other phone. He had stopped at phone shops whilst with her at the shopping mall and she had teased him about his love for new phone inventions, calling him a phone hoarder. When he got the new phone, he insisted on using it as a spare in case the other went missing.
The police had carted away relevant gadgets that belonged to him for their investigation. She had assumed they had his phones too.
Why were they showing it to her?
“Do you recognise this phone?” The older detective chose this time to open his mouth.
Abike swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded. She felt a jab go straight through her heart. This was the detective that took her call one evening and assured her that Marvin would go to jail. The one who told her that she would have to work harder to get back the relationship she had with her daughter. ‘It might never be the same again but love between a mother and their daughter never completely wanes,’ he’d said. He described it as a pond in winter – one that might freeze over but at some point the warmth of kinder weathers thaws it and it is beautiful again.
“Someone found this phone at Hartley Park. We think they were going to keep it but probably changed their mind,” DCI Strong said.
“That was because of the images of children on the phone.” The other detective added, glaring at her. “Indecent images.”
“Images?” she asked.
“Yes, Mrs Hayes,” he straightened his posture. His jawline tightened at the same time, making Abike feel as if his scowls were all a facade. That he was, in fact, struggling to hold it together. “Images of girls as young as two being abused by men; sometimes gang-raped.”
Abike jerked her back against her chair. She would have leapt out of the chair if someone’s voice hadn’t stopped her. Nausea gripped her with alarming strength. Her tears had started leaving her eyes when the solicitor asked if they could take a break.
“Mrs Hayes,” DCI Strong spoke in the voice he used on the phone with her. “All we want to know is if you were the one that tried to get rid of this evidence by dumping the phone at the park. We already have a witness who claims that you helped Marvin fulfil his desires. That you encouraged your children’s friends to come over regularly.”
Abike gawked at the solicitor before returning her attention to the policemen.
“I haven’t seen that phone for ages. I didn’t drop it at the park. And if you are parents, you would know that a mother would never support anyone to do what Marvin did to my daughter. Or what he did to Tania.”
Wale drove her home after the police released her. The solicitor said they didn’t have enough evidence to charge her. Yet, all she could think of in the car was why anyone would try to set her up for something she hadn’t done.
“What if they arrest me again?” Abike asked Wale after having a shower that evening. Her pyjama top hung loose like it had been donated to her by someone bigger. He was at the table eating the jolof rice he had cooked earlier, because for the first time in her life she had not felt as if a warm house and full belly would make everything seem normal.
He set his spoon down and pointed to the plate heaped with rice and cubed, fried meat. “Sit down and eat your food please.”
Taking the seat and sinking her spoon into the middle of the steaming rice to stop him from worrying, she scooped some into her mouth and resisted the urge to spit it out. Her appetite had gone with her baby. The same way this heaviness had settled on her and created this new her that bounced from apathy to despair at will. She took a sip of her water to force the food down.
“When I called the children earlier, Foluke didn’t speak much. Do you think it was her that dumped the phone?”
He nodded and then picked up his glass of wine. “Don’t be angry with her. She did it before you told her why he had been arrested.”
“She told me on the phone… when you were in the shower that she found the phone under her pillow. Perhaps Marvin wanted to stay in touch with her. You said that he was going to run away before the police arrived.”
“What about the images? Did she look at the pictures?
He shook his head. “No. Apparently she took it to the park the day he was arrested and flung it in the bin. She thought he had been arrested for stealing or something like that and I’m guessing she wanted to protect him.”
Abike gulped down the rest of the water in her cup. Afterwards, she picked up the wine bottle and filled her cup to the brim.
“What are you doing, Abby? You don’t drink.”
“I have just found out that my daughter keeps a lot of secrets from me.”
She took a few swigs from her cup, ignoring his look that was set somewhere between worry and disapproval. “My mother-in-law hates me. Another reason to drink.”
“I think she is the witness the police are referring to. She told them I was helping her son do what he was doing.”
He poured himself some more wine. “Let’s drink to our families – your children, my wife and the girls in Lagos.”
“Girls.” Abike narrowed her eyes at him. “You can’t be drunk already. You have one child.”
“You obviously don’t talk to Sherri anymore. She gave birth to a baby six months ago.”
“Wale, you didn’t say you went to Lagos last year?”
“I didn’t.” He sipped from his drink and made a weak attempt to return to his food before shrugging. “The baby is our married neighbour’s child.”
“Enh? Fred, your neighbour? Were you two not friends? The last time you spoke about him, you said he helped Sherri with everything.”
“Yeah. He helped Sherri with everything, including keeping our bed warm. I guess he did the job a little too well.”
“I didn’t know. Why didn’t you say something?”
He picked up the wine bottle which was now empty, glared at it before setting it down close to the edge of the table. “We need more wine or something stronger. I will go to the supermarket, looks like I’m going to turn up to work tomorrow with a hangover.”
“Do you miss her?”
“No, I think as the years passed, we both learnt to cope without the other. By the time I was ready to have them move here a few years ago, she said no. She said she wouldn’t like the cold weather and the boredom. She said I should continue coming home at Christmas and in July.”
“Haba, you could have tried harder, Wale. I know how much you love Sherri and your daughter.”
He sighed. “This whole thing with Marvin really affected me. Now I lay in bed awake every night wondering if my ten year old daughter is safe.”
“All men are not like Marvin.”
“I know, Abby. I also know there are quite a lot of men like that. My mother was fifteen when they found out she was pregnant. She was soon married off to my father, a man that was forty years older when they got married.”
She knew the story. Alhaji Dehinde and Saheed’s grandfather — fondly called Chief Naira-Baba –were close friends. Alhaji Dehinde had helped his friend in the business world, assisted him in setting up his first saw mill. When Chief Naira-Baba discovered his older friend had made his daughter pregnant, he invited him over and the men decided that the girl would become one of Alhaji’s wives.
“He already had six wives. They subjected her to all manner of hell before she managed to escape one night with me. My uncle…”
“He refused to let her go back and raised me like his own. Even though my mother became a successful businesswoman, she never got back what my father took from her. You have seen the way she is with the wives and daughters.”
Abike knew what he was referring to. She saw the way Saheed’s mother dropped everything to welcome Alhaja Taiwo and Mama Shagamu who were five years younger than Wale’s mother once. The way Aunty Kaffy, Wale’s mother always seemed to be full of apologies. She had assumed she was this way because the latter had no husband.
They drank until she could barely make out what time it was. Until, she was bold enough to tell him she had pretended to like him when Saheed introduced them. He had this bond with Saheed that she envied. She told him he made her uncomfortable, the way his eyes studied her. He explained that he needed to be sure she was good enough for his cousin.
“So, you can judge my character by the size of my hips? she questioned, eyebrows raised.
She noticed how perfectly his dimples suited his features. The way his eyes held hers too.
Had she ever looked at him like that? The answer did not come to her.
Abike chased the thought out of her head. Men were dead to her. The last one left scars deeper than wells.
The laughter continued when they both fell over as they tried to navigate the way out of the front door when the taxi he booked – because he could barely recall his name or see past his nose, let alone drive – arrived.
They hugged long and hard before he got in the taxi.
She fumbled with the door but couldn’t remember locking it. That was why when she woke up several hours later to a man’s voice, she didn’t jump out of bed and instead stayed frozen under her duvet.
It could only be Marvin.