“What do you mean your sister is gone?”
The boy blinked back tears. She turned to her sister-in-law, firmly aware that her head was pounding, that her heart wouldn’t be able to cope with anything else.
“Sister Fausa, where is my daughter?”
“Calm down,” Fausat stepped forward. “You know you can’t worry too much because of your health…”
“Not knowing where my daughter is will not help my health,” Abike stated, fighting the urge that overwhelmed her. The urge to shout and yank at her hair.
“Wale decided to come early this morning to drive us down here. I called Foluke to come down when he arrived. When she did not come down, I went up to check on her…”
“She wasn’t there, Mum,” Leke finished for his auntie as if the woman had ran out of words to narrate the story.
“Wale dropped us off and now he has driven to the train station to look for her. He gave her twenty pounds yesterday but she doesn’t have any extra money. We think the only place she would have come to is London. That is the only place she knows, iyawo wa.”
Abike hugged Leke. “Darling, stay here with your auntie. Let me get dressed and go look for her.”
“Where are you going to go?” Fausat asked. “Let me go.”
“I am her mother.” Abike said, raising her voice to show that the conversation was over.
Abike saw her when she got to the park. Her daughter was on a swing and looked as lost as she herself felt weeks ago. Her shoulders were hunched, head hung low.
She walked over and slotted her frame – which had shrunk three sizes – quietly on the swing next to her.
“Mum?” The girl stared at her, clearly confused. Her hood hid most of her braids. The roots showed, rough, curly hair straining against black plaits.
“Someone needs a hairdresser.”
Foluke grinned. “Yeah Mum. I never thought I would miss your painful grip on my hair. The blow drying, creaming and combing.” She pulled the tip of her hood to her forehead. “How did you know I was here?”
“Your father used to bring you and Leke here whenever he could.”
“I miss my dad.”
“I know, Princess. I miss him too.”
“If he was here… he would have protected us…” Foluke looked away and paused for a while. “I missed you Mum but I can’t come back to this place. The whole school knows. Tameka told everyone. She called me a liar in front of the whole class. ”
“You don’t need a friend like that.” Abike rose from the swing to stand in front of her daughter. She put a palm on the corner of her daughter’s face. “If the problem is this…place, we can all start again. We can leave London.”
“Yeah, Princess.” It wasn’t like there was anything keeping them in London. The streets held memories of Saheed. Good memories that she hoped Marvin’s action hadn’t sullied for them forever. They would take those memories with them and leave the soiled ones behind. “If you and Leke want…we can rebuild our lives.”
The girl smiled. It was a small smile that told Abike something else was troubling her.
“We can move close to your auntie. I will change my surname back to your father’s if you are worried about people finding out in future.”
“There is something else,” Foluke said. “I wish I had said something. Then he wouldn’t have been able to do what he did to Tania.”
“It wasn’t your fault. Your trusted him. We all did.”
“I messaged Tania yesterday. They have moved to Birmingham. She said her dad wants me and Leke to stay away from her.”
“That’s fine. Let’s concentrate on healing our own family.”
Abike sighed after Wale and Fausat’s son, Bashy arranged her furniture the way she wanted in their new living room. The van men had dumped everything in the hallway yesterday and half-ran, half-skipped to their van afterwards. After several weeks of living with Fausat whilst waiting for the sale of the flat to go through, it was a relief to be where the three of them could now call home.
“You are going to like it here. I promise.”
Abike had just rejoined Fausat in the kitchen. Her sister-in-law had served herself one of the cupcakes that came out of the oven two minutes ago.
“Are you not going to wait for that to cool?”
“Wait for kini? My mouth was ready for action long before they went in the oven.”
They both laughed.
They still had laughter lines on their faces when Foluke, Leke and Khadijat came into the kitchen.
“This is what I like about you three, you have noses that work.” Fausat took two cans of coke from the fridge. “Which one of you can take these drinks to your uncle and my darling son? Bashy has been helping your uncle all day. First day back from the university and we are making him work hard.”
The children stood there, staring at each other without speaking, seeming to be volunteering the others for the job.
“I will take them.” Abike said as she placed the cans on a round tray with a few cupcakes and serviettes. “You can’t come between these kids and their food.”
“No jare. I don’t even know where they get it from. Our people don’t eat like they do.” Fausat bit into her second cupcake whilst her other hand fondled a banana she had picked up from the fruit basket.
She heard his voice from the master bedroom, knocked and entered without bothering to wait because she expected to find him with Bashy. He was alone and staring at his phone by the window ledge.
“Sorry, I didn’t think you were on your own. I thought Bashy was here.” She said and set the tray down on the bed.
“He is outside. On the phone to his uni girlfriends I guess.” Wale pointed at his phone. “Shane just called me. Do you remember him?”
Abike nodded. Marvin had introduced Shane as a friend before they got married. They had seen each other once. Then she saw him at court during the trial. After the final session, the man had approached her and he and Wale exchanged pleasantries. It turned out that they worked in the same council department a few years back.
“Marvin’s mother called Shane,” Wale said. “She asked him to go and see him. He has been beaten up in prison.”
“What? Is he Okay?”
“He is alive.” He pursed his lips and shook his head. “Shane said no to the mother. He doesn’t want to be seen anywhere near the man.”
She sighed. “This news doesn’t change how I feel. I am happy it’s all over.” She was relieved that the taped testimonies and video-link were enough in court, having spent months worrying that her daughter and Tania would be made to face him in court. Due to the CPS and the police taking the case as if the girls were personally known to them, the trial was thankfully not too traumatic.
“I am happy for you. He deserved more than the seven years he got but I’m happy he is banged up. You can live your lives now. Don’t let him win by just existing, Abby. You have to learn to live again.”
They were silent after. The sort of pregnant silences that signalled there was too much that needed to be said.
He broke it first by asking if he could have one of the cans. She realised that he was avoiding her eyes. It was perhaps the first time they had been alone since her hospitalisation.
“I’m sorry Wale … for the things I accused you of. I don’t know what came over me. I wasn’t thinking. I couldn’t think.”
“Don’t be silly. I was the one in the wrong. I shouldn’t have stayed and…”
“I asked you to stay.”
“I shouldn’t have kissed you when you were clearly drunk,” he whispered. “I am not prefect but I should have been looking out for you and not trying to go for what I wanted. What I want.”
Nothing came to her apart from the decisions she had made in her head. Her life would be dedicated to her children. Their happiness would be her happiness. She searched for something to say as he held her gaze.
“The kids will miss you when you go to Nigeria on Monday.”
“I will miss you all.” He scratched his chin with his free hand. He was dressed in jeans and a black tee-shirt that made him look slimmer. It was as if their crisis had affected him the way it did them.
“I am only going for four weeks. I have to see my daughter. I can come down and see you and the children when I come back.”
“That won’t be necessary. Sister Fausa is here and you live in London.”
“Leke needs someone to show him how to play football. He told me he likes baking. That’s not cool.”
“Wale…” she trailed off, despite knowing what needed to be said. Hearing it in her head made it sound logical. Necessary. He would understand. “You know what I have been through…” She moved back when he stepped forward. “Don’t.”
He didn’t move any closer even though his face told her he was struggling to stand still and stay quiet.
“The children have to come first. I’m sorry.”
She was sat next to Fausat in the kitchen but it was the conversation that Fausat’s daughter was having with her cousin that had her concentration.
“Away it is then, Folu.”
The girl had just finished explaining the benefits of leaving home for their higher education.
“We can always apply to University of Glasgow. My brother loves life over there and our mums can always visit us together. We can live on campus or off campus. What do you think, cousin?” Khadijat asked.
“Defo,” Foluke replied. “It will be totally awesome…”
“You still have a few years to decide.” Abike interrupted, taking a while longer than necessary to cross her legs as the two girls turned to look at her. “Besides, why would you want to waste the travel money when there are excellent universities around here?”
“Excellent or good? There is a difference between those two words, Mum.”
“Stop trying to get clever with me child.” Her gaze returned to her sister-in-law who seemed to be trying to communicate with her eyes, only for it to be diverted back to the girls when she spied them making their way out of the kitchen. “And where are you going now? I want you where I can keep my eyes on you.”
“We were going to go upstairs to study, Auntie.” Khadijat voiced softly.
“Let them go.” Fausat said.
The girls left immediately. She could tell Fausat didn’t approve of her behaviour.
“Sister, I can’t afford to let anything else happen to my daughter.”
“I know.” Fausat took a sip of her juice. “But you shouldn’t overdo it my dear. If you do, you will push her away.”
“But I have to protect her.”
“You are already doing that. You just can’t start following her everywhere because of what happened. If you do, she will never recover. Move forward. Apply for that transfer your manager spoke of when your maternity leave ends. Going back to work will help. You will like the branch here too.”
Abike had assumed she had lost her job when she failed to communicate with her managers. At some point, the letters became too much. She had simply stopped opening the envelopes. Luckily for her, Greg, her branch’s manager had started her on automatic maternity leave after Pamilerin died.
“Thank you for everything, Sister. I know I haven’t thanked you properly…”
“I didn’t just do it for him you know. Even though I know how much that man cares for you and your children.” Fausat paused and then continued, “sometimes happiness comes in forms unexpected.”
Abike knew her sister-in-law wasn’t talking about Saheed. She fixed her gaze on the fruit bowl on the table, angry that her mind had started to debate the issue in her head again. There were other things that were much more important. Her children. Their safety and happiness.
“You should have seen the way Wale reacted yesterday when I asked for a special request,” Fausat changed the subject. “I asked him to go to our house in Lagos and check for signs that my husband hasn’t hosted a female visitor.”
“I did. I know my husband will be back here next year but my dear sister, it only takes one minute to sow a seed. I don’t want any yeye girl fighting me over properties.”
Abike was in the kitchen. She could hear everyone wishing Wale a safe journey back to Lagos in the living room. She concentrated on scrubbing the pot that cooked the jolof rice they all ate an hour ago.
She could hear his voice, protesting over the shopping list Fausat had given him.
“Fausa, they won’t let me carry all this enter naa. You think the reason I’m going home is to bring you egusi and stockfish?”
“Uncle…” Bashy’s loud voice followed. “If you try to smuggle the things on that list into the UK, you might end up in Guantanamo Bay for trying to import Ebola into the country. I know Mum has put bush meat on that list. Don’t call me to come bail you out. Your nephew is a law student, not a lawyer.”
She turned on the washing machine. It drowned the laughter. Then the voices seemed to be fading and she guessed they were all outside, waving him off. That was why it surprised her when he walked into the kitchen.
“Do you want monkey meat?”
“What?” She tore pieces from the paper towel rack, dried her hands and tossed the wet remnants in the bin.
“You don’t want to place your order? You don’t want a big sack of garri from Ijebu?” He grinned and then put his hands in his pocket.
“Wale…” Her voice faltered.
“You said you would like to come over when you get back to see the children.”
“I think you should. I mean my answer is yes. We would be happy to see you.” She turned her attention back to the sink, embarrassed that nothing sensible came from her mouth.
“I will.” He stepped forward as if to hug her, stopping on her right and then pressing his lips on her cheek. “At your own pace, Abby. Whatever you want.”
The kiss was chaste. Yet, she felt silly when he said goodbye.
She was still smiling when her daughter came into the kitchen minutes later. One glance was all it took to work out what was going on in Foluke’s mind.
“I will stop following you with my eyes and ears, Princess. Not completely, but I will try to reduce it.”
“I don’t want you to worry all the time.” Foluke twirled one of her new braids.”
Abike cupped the girl’s cheek with one of her palms. “It will take a while for me to stop worrying but I will try.”
“I don’t have to go too far away for uni Mum. I know you need me close.”
Leke sauntered in, brows squeezed together. “I’m the big man around here, sis. Mum has me to protect this crib.”
“I don’t need protecting.” She pulled the children into her arms, their heads reaching her neck. “I need us to build a family so strong, outside forces wouldn’t be able to penetrate.”
“This is the sort of promise that should be made over cakes and chocolate Mum.” Leke piped.
Abike laughed and said yes. A few months back her “no” would have been finitely pronounced. Spelt and repeated if possible. Having nearly lost it all, she wanted to celebrate having it all.