Anu’s eyes were dry; dried-out of the tears that framed her eyes when they arrived at the hospital. It was Bradley that called for an ambulance after her screams sent him racing into her bedroom. The screams were her reaction to Auntie Yele saying ‘Alhaji is clutching his chest, the love of my life is gone.’ This was after the woman accused her of killing her father. A man that she could hear groaning in the background.
Why didn’t the woman think of ringing the emergency services? This was the question that raced through her head as Bradley rushed her to the hospital. A question he voiced –phrased with polite restraint – when a lady at the reception desk told them to wait, that the ambulance got to the hospital with her father a few minutes back.
Idriss had arrived a few minutes after with his wife and mother-in-law. Mother and daughter clung to each other like they couldn’t trust their legs to hold them up.
They were all waiting quietly and although she was sometimes aware of Bradley’s presence as he fetched her things – coffee, fizzy drink, tissues – the only thing that had her concentration was the hinged, double doors separating emergency rooms from the waiting area. The quietness of the group as if they were already in mourning suited her mood.
She jumped up when the door opened outward and a doctor with scraped-back hair stepped through the door way.
“Is my father okay?”
The doctor’s face bore no telling clues.
“How is Mr Biobaku?” Idriss stepped forward and stood beside her. “We are his family. How is he?”
The doctor tried to continue. She had barely opened her mouth before Auntie Yele’s loud wails rented the room. The woman threw herself on the floor calling on God to resurrect her dead beloved. Anu rolled her eyes as both Idriss and Bradley tried to prise her off the floor.
“He is fine.” The doctor announced, repeating the words a little bit louder when Auntie Yele’s eyes peeked at her.
“Thank you doctor.” Anu said, hoping that both Idriss and Bradley noticed that Auntie Yele’s face was dry. That her eyes shed no tears for the love of her life.
“Daddy is fine,” Elicia squeaked from behind Anu.
“He has angina…” The doctor stated.
“He had a heart attack?” Auntie Yele screamed.
“No.” The doctor replied but she only addressed Anu. Scowling creases had gathered between her eyebrows. She sounded impatient. “He is fine. Angina can be managed…which is what I have explained to him. Would you like to come with me, he is really tired but we can allow one visitor for now and he said he would like to see his daughter.”
“I’m his daughter too,” Her sister’s voice shrilled to life again as she shoved her slight body between Anu and her husband.
The doctor looked from Elicia to Anu. “I assumed.”
“I look more like him.” Anu didn’t want the doctor to feel bad for doing her job. She wanted to see her father. He could have died. Her heart was still wrenching. “Can I go in and see him first?” She asked her sister, tilting her neck without looking at her.
“Let your sister go and see him, babe.” Idriss linked arms with his wife and glanced at Anu. His eyes were not cold anymore. He didn’t smile either. “We can wait.”
Her tears started to fall again when Anu saw her father covered in tubes on a hospital bed. He looked so pale, the shine that his stretched skin usually bore had been sucked by the mysterious ailment. He seemed slimmer too as if whatever attacked him, fed on body fat.
“You are becoming soft like your mother.” Alhaji grimaced. His eyes told her he was happy to see her.
“I love you, dad.” Anu reached for the hand that had the hospital band on. He squeezed her hand really tight. “I was worried. I thought…” Her voice failed her. She would never forgive Auntie Yele for making her think her dad had died.
Why would anyone do that?
“Don’t worry, your late grandmother used to feed me herbal concoctions back at home, no illness or bullet is strong enough to catch me. My health is stronger than Olumo Rock.”
“Dad, the doctor says you have angina.”
“Enh, the angina might have caught me but it will not beat me.” He flexed his hand. “Alhaji Biobaku is a strong bulldog. I can run from here to Calais and still beat your brother-in-law.”
Anu narrowed her eyes but the nurse in the room couldn’t stop her giggles.
Idriss settled into a seat next to Yele in the cosy visitors’ room. He had left his wife beside Alhaji’s sick bed and Bradley had to leave Anu too after their father asked if he could speak to the girls alone.
He was still reeling from the ‘get well soon’ card he spotted displayed in Alhaji’s room. It had all their names on. The writing was not Anu’s curly, plump lettering that skidded across the lines like snails. It was a rough drawl and the owner dared spell his name with one s. It had taken one quick glance at Bradley’s arrogant face to deduce it was him that thought it was his place to write out a card like that. He couldn’t help sniggering as the man browsed through a collection of newspapers in front of them.
Bradley held out The Telegraph keeping hold of The Guardian. “You want a read?”
He shook his head. Who did he think he was? Who crowned him stand-in head of Alhaji’s family?
“I can go and get you Daily Sport or The Sun if that’s what you fancy.”
He returned his gaze to the man. “What are you trying to say? That I’m a rich jerk who likes to look at pictures of semi naked girls?”
Bradley fiddled with the papers, looking from Yele to Idriss like someone trying to crawl away from trouble. “I have seen you reading The Sun at work before. Twice, when I came to pick up my girlfriend.”
“How do you think your wife would feel?” His mother-in-law spoke up in low Yoruba. “The way you treat your ex’s man can indicate you still want his woman.”
“His woman is not my ex.” He snapped in Yoruba.
She recoiled. Picking up her bag and searching through it with the slowness of someone not really looking for anything.
“Yele, you are not just my mother-in-law, you are a friend. You know me. I’m sure you have noticed I’m trying to be a good husband to your daughter. I’m not perfect but I want this marriage to work.”
The man had stopped turning the newspaper pages, perhaps wondering if they were talking about him. He imagined him cramming the easier words to regurgitate to Anu, his woman.
“I know.” She replied in Yoruba. “The fact that you were willing to marry her knowing what you know… really moved me. It shows you love her. Most men can’t do it.”
Idriss didn’t respond. He had a feeling they were not thinking about the same thing –his discovery of his wife’s sordid stripping past.
“When she told me that she told you the truth and you promised to support her, to stand by her, I shed tears. To think I didn’t want you to date her in the first place. Here you are taking her cross as yours.”
He knew she wasn’t talking about the stripping as soon as she mentioned ‘her cross’. Whatever it was, here was his chance to find out. He could barely think as anticipation and anxiety fought to be the chief resident in his head. Maybe this had something to do with her disappearance last week, yesterday afternoon when she switched off her phone whilst supposedly at the gym and the phone call she went into the kitchen last night to receive.
“What can I say…” he stretched out his legs, “it shocked me when she told me but she is my wife, what else could I have done.”
“You surprised me.”
“How?” He felt like shaking her and telling her to reveal his wife’s secret right now.
“Well, you see, if this kind of thing happened back home…”
They both looked up at the same time. His wife was standing in the door way with her sister. A smile played on her face. Looks wise, he chose the right sister. Even right now, he wished they were at home and she was on the sofa next to him displaying her long legs in the briefs she often wore, her hand brushing his thighs every time she reached for the remote control. He could never tire of having her.
“What are you two planning? Mum?”
“Nothing.” It was Yele that spoke. Rather too quickly.
Anu had walked into the room and was now squatted beside Bradley whispering into his ear. The man’s hand was on her back and his fingers seemed to be kneading the spot his palm sat on. His neck craned so close to her face that Idriss felt the urge to go over and wipe the smug look on his face with a single swipe.
“Hubby,” Elicia sat on his legs. “Bae is gonna go home to cook for our dad and bring it in the next visiting hour.”
He glanced at Yele without saying anything.
“It is a special Oyo stew.” Anu said, beaming a proud smile. “My grandma used to make it whenever dad fell ill. Mum did too.”
“And your dad trusts you to make it?” Idriss asked, puzzled.
“She is a fantastic cook,” Bradley said. “She doesn’t cook often because she would rather be out signing contracts and scoring commissions but when she does she is a master chef.”
Anu patted Bradley’s back. “I will leave you to singing my praises whilst I go to the little girl’s room. See you in a minute.”
As Anu walked into the hallway heading towards the ladies’ –the one she’d visited six times since they arrived – she could hear hurried footsteps behind her. She didn’t turn around. Tucked inside the toilet, standing in front of the full length mirror, she waited for her sister to get close enough before saying, ‘hi Eli’.
“The next time you try to blackmail my man to get to me, I swear I will take you down.”
Elicia looked startled. If she didn’t know her well enough the doubts would have crept in again. If she didn’t know too that her sister knew who got her pregnant, she would have been screaming at her.
“Bae, what did I do?”
“I know you tried to get Brad on side. You told him you would tell me his secret.” She turned around, raising her voice a bit. “You tried to kiss him two years ago and then you tried to blackmail him.”
“He made the first move.”
“No. You did! I know this because he told me the same night it happened.” She laughed a hooting laugh that sounded a bit similar to her father’s vicious one. “You think me and Brad have secrets?”
Her sister’s shoulders had slumped in defeat now. Her eyes however held a glint of defiance.
“Just tell me why you are so keen to destroy me. I had one night with your man. Tell me Eli, what would you do to the woman that has a month with him? Or a year? You have to get over it sis because no man is worth all this scheming for.”
“My baby died because of you.”
“Liar!” Anu screamed. “How could I have killed a baby that wasn’t there in the first place?”
She would have continued screaming if her sister didn’t look like the young girl she and Bradley used to take shopping. They always felt sorry for her. She was a frail little thing who was often left home alone by her young, struggling mother.
“I know you framed me for the miscarriage. I have proof that I will use if you don’t back off.”
Anu was lucky that she didn’t miss her antenatal appointment at the Sure Start centre on Monday. She had felt ill with worry that morning. Her blood pressure had been higher than normal. She told Uche, her midwife that her sister’s miscarriage had caused her duress – taking care not to blame her sister for anything. Words would get back to Idriss. Uche’s boyfriend Emeka and Idriss were as close as twins. That was perhaps the reason she didn’t miss the look that passed though Uche’s eyes and her silence afterwards.
When she asked if Uche saw her sister at the Sure Start centre or the health centre –where she also worked – coming in for her antenatal appointments, Uche’s attempt to change the topic was poor and obvious. Enough to trigger questions in Anu’s head.
What if her sister had lost the baby weeks ago, perhaps before the wedding but didn’t want to say so lest Idriss changed his mind about getting married? That would explain Elicia’s hesitation every time she asked about the baby – its position, morning sickness, what sex she wanted. That would explain her flat tummy too.
“I know my husband is the father of your baby,” Elicia’s eyes looked glassy. She tugged at the charm bracelet on her wrist as if it was the one that wronged her. “How can you guarantee that he won’t fall for you when he and you start playing mummy and daddy?”
“I don’t have designs on your husband.”
When Bradley told her Elicia knew the truth, her head had hurt as she tried to work out how she found out. She had always underestimated her sister. People they knew did. They thought all the girl had was faultless beauty that made even women stop and take another look. And it was Elicia’s doing. She stepped into rooms with the awkwardness of someone who didn’t know where they were going or what day it was.
“Is it not enough that you took my father away from me? You are his favourite princess and he didn’t even acknowledge my existence all my life… now, you want my husband too.”
“I don’t, Eli.”
“Then stay away from him. Maybe, we can become close again. We can be the sisters we are supposed to be.”
“I can stay away from your husband.” She pulled the strap of her bag which was now dangling on her wrist back on her shoulder. “I don’t think we can be close again. No. You made people think I killed your baby, Eli.”
“If you tell him…”
“I won’t, if you stay away from me and Brad.” She walked towards the door and opened it; the need to empty her bladder had long gone. “If you try anything, I swear I will take you down quicker than you can say bae. You will know my father taught me well. I will come after you with everything I learnt. So, little sis, don’t you dare come after me again.”
Elicia shoved the severely burnt toasts into a plate, picked up the tube of Lurpak with a table knife and hurried into their living room where Idriss was buttoning up the shirt that she helped him take off minutes ago. She placed the plate on the table and sucked her index finger. It got sizzled when she attempted to take the toasts out without switching off the toaster.
“Temptress,” Idriss directed his gaze at her breasts which jiggled about in the Ann Summer’s night wear that hid just one part of her. “Now I’m late.”
She bit her lower lip and avoided looking at him. He was buckling his belt and the sheer sound of it reminded her of the height he had just taken her to. The thing about him was, he liked her to want him but he didn’t want a woman that craved sex. He had spoken to her before about women he had easily in London. Dammed women, he called them. If only he knew.
“I have to leave that,” he pointed at the toasts. “I forgot we are having a team breakfast at the new cafe in town.”
“Is Anu going to be there?” She hoped her voice sounded casual. The way one would ask a question to pass time.
“Yes…because I have no choice.” He picked up the file he dropped on the table earlier and his laptop bag, keeping his eyes on her. “I’m trying to secure a deal with the town’s mayor. Turns out he knows her and will only do business with the agency if she is involved.”
“I’m not complaining darling but when I called the hospital last night, they said they might discharge our dad today and he would want her to pick him up.”
“I will go and pick him up, she doesn’t have a car anyway.” He kissed her lips and hurried out of the house, mouthing, see you wifey before shutting the door.
Her mother came thudding down the stairs immediately. Anyone would have thought the woman was twice her size, not a petite thing with bust the size of a teenager’s. Her eyes wandered around as if trouble in physical form had knocked on the door.
“Is your husband gone?”
“Yeah. Did we wake you with all our noise down here? My hubby can’t take his hands off me…”
“Eli, it’s about what I asked you before you got married.” Her mother interrupted, moving closer to her.
“Calm down, woman.” Elicia knew it was about her sister. Their plans to ostracise Anu from the Biobaku family wouldn’t work without Bradley and Idriss’ support. And she had come to realise too that her mother, not her, would gain more if her sister wasn’t close to their father anymore. Her sister already had her father. It was her husband she didn’t want her to have.
“Let’s wait, Mum. We will strike when she is not expecting. For now, I want to concentrate on getting pregnant and giving my hubby a son.” A cleaner at the hospital had jokingly said Anu’s low bump would indicate she was carrying a girl.
Her mother’s eyes were a pair of penetrative, angry darts that stared at her in the cold manner she used when Elicia tried to gain the affection of one of her married lovers once. “You lied to me, Eli.”
“What now, mother?”
“You said you told Idriss the truth about you. You said he is fine with it. That was why I said you could marry him. But when I spoke to him at the hospital, he didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. He tried to get me to talk.”
“You did what?” Elicia yelled, covering the few inches between her and her mother. “Have you destroyed my marriage with your leaking mouth? Do you want me to end up old and unmarried like you?”
“You are not going to have your life talkless of a marriage if your husband finds out. He will show you he is a correct Yoruba man that day, ode buruku. How can you do this, Eli? You told me he knew. You said he went to his doctor to ask questions. Aah, you have killed me.”
She wanted her mother’s wailings to stop. She sounded like a market woman that had landed in an affluent area by accident.
“Stop it mother. I only have HIV. It is not a big deal these days.”