They were now in his bedroom, the glow from the rechargeable lantern surrounding them, and cool night air from the open windows stroking them like caressing fingers.
Stroking her, at least, Anya mused, sighing at the pleasure of fresh breeze and his warm body. “Are you sleepy?” she asked in a voice she decided was limber with satisfaction.
“No.” His voice sounded lazy and drowsy though.
“So, you don’t mind if we talk some more.”
“If you like.”
“I want to talk about you.” Anya felt him stiffen. “We don’t have to, if you’d rather not. But I sense…” She stopped, shifted up to stare in his face.
His eyes were open and stared back in hers. “Do you know that when you laugh, it doesn’t reach your eyes?”
“I’m not laughing now.”
“No, you’re not. But I’ve seen you laugh, and it never quite touches your eyes.”
“Unlike you. Who, when you laugh, it sparkles in your eyes and makes them dance.” He stroked his finger close to her eye, then trailed it down to her cheek. “I’m not sad, if that’s what you’re thinking, Anya.”
“I know you’re not. But it looks to me like you’re not as happy as you can be.” Not wanting to altogether lose the comfort of his body, she turned on her side, crooking her hand to hold her head, so they were face to face. “It’s curiosity, but not idle curiosity. I just want to know you more.”
“You said that before.”
“I did. Tell me about when you came to live with your father when you were nine.” As she was watching him closely, Anya saw the small frown knit his brows, and added, “Or just tell me to shut up and mind my own business, if you don’t want to talk about it.”
He gave a soft chuckle. “I never talk about it. Not since I came home and told Iye how it was. Not that she couldn’t see for herself how it was when she visited.”
There was some pain there. Not in the eyes he kept hooded, but Anya could hear a trace of it in the words. “You actually can tell me to mind my business, and I promise there won’t be any hard feelings. Particularly, when we started this with the sole desire to enjoy each other. But the thing is, I like to think we’ve gone beyond that.”
“I might not want it to be so, but I believe that’s the case,” he said.
She wanted to question why he would not want it to be so, but Anya was quick to remember she had a focus on the talk she wanted them to have. So, she prodded in a gentle voice, “How was it, going home with your father?”
Saz stared at her. He wanted to change the subject. The temptation was there. The words trembled on his tongue. But the care in her eyes pushed them back down his throat.
“It was nothing like I’d thought…I’d dreamed it would be,” he said quietly. “I wanted a home, like all the children around me seemed to have–Mummy and Daddy living together and the children with them. All under same roof.”
Talking about this somehow killed off the blissful aftermath he’d been enjoying, so Saz moved to grab a clean pair of boxers and T-shirt from the wardrobe.
“I must have been three when my mother left us–Iye and I–and moved to Lagos. At the time, of course, I didn’t know where she’d gone to, and I only vaguely missed her because we weren’t close to begin with.”
He climbed back on the bed, but instead of stretching beside her, he sat with his back against the bed post and drew her up into his arms, spreading the cover he usually used over her.
“She didn’t want me. I mean, when she discovered she was pregnant, she’d wanted an abortion. But Iye already had her suspicions, and questioned her, then pleaded with her to keep the baby. So, she wasn’t actually looking to have a baby, and obviously didn’t take to me even after I was born.”
“I’m sorry for that.”
Saz accepted the soft words with a slight shrug. “Of course, I only knew about this after I returned home, hurt, angry, disillusioned and looking for answers. The answers were my parents were involved in a casual relationship; just sex, nothing more. And she found out she was pregnant only after they’d gone their separate ways.”
“Did they meet here at Ogwashi-Uku, or in Benin?”
“Oh, Benin. My father had been visiting friends at the time. Anyway, he never knew of my existence until I was two. Iye had forced my mother to get in touch with him through one of those friends. She’d started to think it wouldn’t be fair to me to grow up without a father. Or for my father to not know he had a son.”
“She was right,” Anya said. “It wouldn’t have been fair on either of you. So, what did he do?”
“My father? Nothing. Not for the next seven years. Well, that’s not very accurate,” Saz corrected, thinking back, remembering a past he’d rather forget, but couldn’t. “He came just before I turned four, with a relative. His uncle, I think. They were kind of accepting their claim on me.
“After that, I only heard from Iye that he got married, that he was taking care of my school fees and basic needs. Not that Iye asked him to do so, or needed him to. Then Iye told me he was coming to take me to live with him, and his wife, and my sisters. And though I didn’t want to leave her, I wanted so much to have that kind of family.”
He’d been excited at the prospect of finally having a normal family, Saz remembered.
“What happened?” Anya asked softly.
“I discovered I had a father, a step-mother and two half-sisters,” Saz said, and wasn’t even surprised at the echo of bitterness in his voice. “She–my step-mother–explained it to me. Yes, she knew I existed before she married my father. No, she didn’t want me in her home. And no, she wasn’t going to allow me ruin her marriage, or her happiness.
“It was the first chat we had after she showed me to my room. Which, coincidentally, is this room, with a lot of things different, and most likely better.”
“Your father had this house then?”
Saz nodded. “Yes. He’d inherited his father’s land, and was well to do enough to erect a structure on it soon after he got married. But he gave the house polish as the years went by.”
“Didn’t you tell your father about what she said? Of course, you didn’t,” Anya answered her own question. “You were just a boy, and in a strange world where you suddenly realised you were a stranger, and terrifyingly alone.”
“Yes.” As her keen perception was one of the things he liked about her, Saz found himself dropping his head to kiss her lightly. “And it got worse every day. I was no better than a house boy her husband had brought home, and she made certain I did the house chores.
“Ifeanyi and Somto were four and two at the time, so couldn’t help out in the house, and she wasn’t interested in adding to her workload by doing things for me. Her words,” Saz added. “I don’t think I would have minded much the chores and beatings, except they were accompanied with poor food, or no food some days.”
“And your father still didn’t know?”
“That I wasn’t being fed right? No, he didn’t. In any case, all of these didn’t happen at once. It slowly degenerated, from one day to the next, another month, another year. And only became harder and more obvious after she had her son. I think his birth kind of put a seal on her place in the house, and made it even clearer to her that I didn’t, and shouldn’t be allowed a place there.”
Wanting to put it aside because he didn’t like to remember, even when it was all eternally etched in his memory, Saz said, “They had fights over it, my father and her. When he started to see more and more how it was, they fought over it. But he was a quiet man, soft-spoken, the kind that preferred to avoid trouble.
“So instead of fights, he devised the habit of requesting I join him at the store after school. It didn’t always work, because she could come take me home if she wanted. But those days at the store made all the difference. Anyway, when I finished secondary school, I was already eighteen and old enough to face him with the only option that I was going back to my grandmother.
“He didn’t even argue. Maybe he was relieved, I don’t know. Or it could be he was thinking of me.” Saz shrugged. “But I left, and I left with a truckload of anger, resentment, and hurt. I wanted nothing more to do with him, with all of them, with this town, and I made my place with my grandmother and Benin.”
“How did you get into business?”
“I wanted it. I’d seen him doing it, and liked it. I didn’t want to be him, you see.” Frowning, Saz tried to explain, “He was something I wanted, and then he disappointed me. I felt more abandoned by him living in his house, than when I was left alone with my grandmother.
“He didn’t, or couldn’t fight to protect me. He was not the man I’d hoped he was, and so, I didn’t want to be him. But he was a good business man, a successful one, and I wanted that. More than that, I wanted to be independent of him, so I chose to apprentice myself, instead of getting into school as he’d wanted.”
“And after, you opened your own store.”
“I opened my own store, started doing well, and then it was gone. And I am here, back at the place I never thought I’d again return to.”
“Life,” Anya said, touching his face and wishing she could brush away the faint disillusion from his eyes. “It takes us where it wills.”
“That it does.”
“I know your sister. Well, I don’t know her as in know her,” Anya said with a small smile. “But I’ve met her a few times. She comes to the shop when she’s in town. I asked her last time when the store was going to open again, and she said when her brother comes home.”
She paused, watching his eyes to see that sink in. Nothing changed in the quiet gaze. “She thinks of you as her brother, and not her half-brother.”
“I know. But it was her mother who made it clear we were not the same. And we were not treated the same in the house where we shared same father.”
Anya nodded. “So, you resent her, for having what you were not allowed to have.”
“I don’t resent her. We’re just not close, and are never going to be.” He withdrew his hand from her shoulders and pushed off the bed. “I’m thirsty and going to get a drink. Want one?”
Anya waited until he was out of the room before rising to get her old shirt and pull it on, not bothering with the buttons as she returned on the bed.
She hadn’t expected him to share that much about himself and his family, and a part of her wanted to let go now closing himself off. But the other part reminded her she wanted to prod his way of thinking of them. Prod it enough for him to maybe want to change it.
“Do you know it’s past ten?” he asked as he came back in with a bottle of soft drink.
“Not surprised.” Anya held out a hand to him. “Come here. I know I’m being a pain in your ass, nosing about your business, but I like you close to me.”
“No, you’re not.” He set his drink on the bedside table, climbed on the bed and took her hand, drawing her to him. “If I didn’t want to tell you my business, I wouldn’t have. And I lied, I do resent her. For having all the things I was denied and those I was forced, by circumstances, to deny myself.”
“I resented Victor after he died. Not immediately. But after a while, when I was alone and unhappy, and heartbroken, I resented him for dying on me. Resented the fact that he’d been sick and didn’t know it, and refused to do anything even when he knew it.”
Anya slipped her hand under his T-shirt to caress his warm skin. “I’m saying that I understand resentment, and it doesn’t always make sense. It doesn’t always make the person we resent actually guilty.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Saz agreed. “She was the one who tried to do something. She would help me with the chores when her mother wasn’t home, and one time she snuck me food when I couldn’t hide the fact I was starving. Of course, she was thoroughly flogged for daring to defy her mother’s laid down rule.
“No, she wasn’t guilty. None of them truly were. I mean, my half-siblings. Well, siblings, if you like.”
Anya smiled against his chest. “I think that sounds better. Especially, if you want to give letting go of the past a chance.”
“Look, I meant it when I said we’re not close, and never going to be, Anya. I’m not close to any of them, not just my father’s daughters.” He gave his head a shake. “My sisters. I’m not close to anyone in the family.”
“Do you want to be?”
“For what purpose?”
“Because they are family. You said your grandmother was your only family, but she’s not here anymore, and you have your sisters. After their mother was gone, was there no attempt to bridge the gap?”
“Ifeanyi tried. Well, Somto did too, but she’s more into herself, and quickly withdrew when she met with my coldness repeatedly.”
“But Ifeanyi didn’t give up.”
“No. She tries to keep communication between us open. I just don’t think…” Saz broke off and exhaled. “I think it’s rather too late. We’re all grown up now. She has her own family…they both have, and I’m going to have mine one day.”
“Which is exactly why you have to make a true attempt to get closer to each other. It will be nice for your children to know their children. Not just know them, but relate well with them.”
“You do know not all family members are close, don’t you?”
Anya laughed at his dry tone. “I know that. But I think a lot who are not close will find they could be if they simply make the effort to be. It’s not going to happen out of the blues, or even be perfect. But I have a gut feeling you will feel better knowing they are there as family.”
He didn’t speak for a long moment. Then he said as he gave a loose shrug, “We’ll see. Meanwhile, enough with dredging up the past. Come here.” He pulled her on top of him, running his hands along her body. “How come you have this shirt back on?”
“Well, I thought it would be nice to have you take if off again,” Anya said, her mouth curving with a big smile.
“And so I will. But first, give me that pretty, smiling mouth.” And giving the shirt a tug, he clamped his mouth on hers, kissing her deeply.