Thursday, 23 January 2020

Her Last Breath (Episode Twenty)




Taofeek
A grin was plastered on my face as I changed into a simple t-shirt and a pair of shorts. Khayrah was very excited to see her family members. I chuckled as I heard their vibrant voices from the living room. My surprise was the best!

I had sat down on the bed to change into my shorts when my phone buzzed with a new notification. It was from Funmilayo.

I’m sorry to bother you. I know you have a lot of expenses to make…but please, remember that your children have started school and they need to pay their school fees. They also need to eat. I hope to hear from you soon.
-          Funmilayo.

My face felt paralyzed as I read through the contents. I jammed on my phone’s keyboard to reply.

I’m so sorry, Funmilayo. I am broke. The month will end in the next four days. I’ll send you something by then. Thanks for your understanding.
-          Taofeek.

I clicked ‘send’ and walked out of the room to meet only Fadilah and her father in the living room. Khayrah’s father had his phone pressed to his left ear as he spoke earnestly while Fadilah sat on the sofa, watching the TV.

“They are in the kitchen,” Fadilah smiled at me as she noticed my questioning eyes searching for Khayrah and her mother.

“Oh….” I stuttered. “I thought as much.”

Sincerely, I’d never quite related well with Khayrah’s family members, asides her mother. Her mother had soft and understanding eyes that usually portrayed the love she had for her daughter.

‘Khayrah loves you so much. And I know you love her. So, I love you both for loving yourself.’ She had remarked on a particular evening when I had called her to relate my worry about Khayrah’s state of health. It was when she was still brooding over the loss of Tijani.

Her last statement still rang in my memory. It meant a lot to me. She knew we both love ourselves deeply…but Khayrah’s father was different. I would feel nervous whenever I was relating to him. He acted nice and polite and he always offered to assist us in whatever way he could…but there was still something about his questioning eyes. Like I had gotten married to his daughter because of his money.

“Brother Taofeek?” Fadilah called as I shook my head and regained myself. I hadn’t noticed that I had been staring at him for long- the man who was dressed in a white kaftan and black cap. Khayrah’s father would be in his early fifties. He was of average height and had chocolate-coloured skin and small, beady eyes. Fadilah was the direct replica of her father, only that she took her mother’s complexion and eyes.

“Yes, Fadilah. I hope you’re enjoying your stay here?”

Her face flickered with a smile, revealing her wide eyes like that of Khayrah’s. “I am. Your house’s cool. You’re very handsome. I don’t know if I’m allowed to compliment the looks of my sister’s husband,” she laughed. “But in all sense, you are. The day you two met, my sister could not sleep. She was so crazy about you. Now, she’s pregnant. I mean, my elder sister is pregnant. The same person that shared the same room with me. We would dance delightfully when our parents were fast asleep and talk about how we imagined our future husband. One of those nights, Khayrah had placed a pillow beneath her blouse and feigned pregnancy.” Fadilah laughed again and I joined her.

“What I’m trying to say is that time flies so fast that you can hardly realize that things are changing. Events are occurring and as they do, we pass through several phases in life. Sometimes, when I look back at those days, I wonder if they are real. If they truly happened. And I’m grateful for life and love, and hope. I watched my sister shed buckets of tears. We thought she would leave so soon. We gazed at her like that would be our last. But here she is, happily married and expecting her first child. Alhamdulillah.” Fadilah stated as she cleaned streaks of tears that fell from her eyes.

“I’m sorry for blabbering, brother Taofeek. I just felt so overwhelmed visiting you and seeing the glow on my sister’s face. Please don’t tell her I said any of these.” She smiled at me in a pleading manner, revealing the intensity of her red-painted lips.

Fadilah was dressed in a red kimono and black veil. Her face glittered, courtesy of the Tara brown powder Khayrah had told me her sister saved money to purchase. I glanced at her petite stature and skin, the colour of papaya. And I wondered how two siblings could be different. Khayrah was selectively shy. She had this excellent aura that swept around her. Khayrah would study an environment critically before being her real self. Well, I saw a different side of Fadilah today. I never knew she could reflect deeply.

“I won’t. Let me go check on them,” I remarked as I turned to leave. I spotted Khayrah’s father, who was now resting on the wall. He was still deeply concentrated in his phone’s conversation. He greeted me with his eyes and I smiled in return as I sauntered towards the kitchen door.

I heard voices as I attempted to turn the doorknob.

Does he know…I’m scared…isn’t pregnancy…the doctor assured…let’s keep praying…

I heard filters from the conversation Khayrah had with her mother. In order not to get caught eavesdropping, I walked away and headed for the room.

Settling on the bed, I read John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars for the seventh time and pondered over deep words the author had written. I had read the book for the first time during my final year in the university and I had no flick of an idea that a similar incident would happen to me. That I would fall in love with someone who is counting her last breaths.

I had spent five minutes reading the book when my phone rang. I picked it up. It was Ridwan calling.

“Asalamu ‘alaykum, bro. How are you and how’s the family?” I greeted cheerfully.

“AlhamduliLlaah. They are fine. Little Zulaihat also sends her regards,” he chuckled. “I actually called to ask if you’ve gotten your bills settled. Have you found anyone to lend you some money?”

“I haven’t oo. But the month will end in four days. I believe we can manage until then. Thanks so much for your care.”

“You’re welcome. How’s your pregnant wife doing?”

I laughed proudly. “Healthier than ever. That reminds me, I spoke to dad yesterday. His legs still hurt him. But he said it’s getting better as he’s using the drugs administered by the doctor.”

Ah, AlhamduliLlaah. I’ll call him today. Old age ehn. Who will ever imagine that our energetic father will suffer from arthritis?”

Abi oo…” I was saying when Khayrah entered the room, smiling teasingly and pulling me up with her onion-smelling hand.

“Food is ready,” she whispered as she kissed my right cheek.

“Ridwan. I’ll call you back.” I said in a frisson as I tailed her.
***
“All the time Khayrah and I made the meal, Fadilah sat in the living room watching the TV.” Her mother frowned at Fadilah as she served the meal on the dining table. I took a seat beside her father as I perceived the nice aroma of fish stew wafting the atmosphere.

“But mom, you know I don’t like cooking. Who made it compulsory for all women to like cooking?”

Khayrah’s mother scrunched up her face as she glared at Fadilah. “Eri eleyi ni! Who told you cooking is not compulsory for women? Even if you hire a cook and let her do all the meals, she’ll end up snatching your husband. Look at your sister. Remember how she would sit in the room and expect Hafsah to do everything in the kitchen? By force by force, she has fallen in love with cooking,” She said as we all laughed.

I dipped my spoon into the plate of boiled rice and fish sauce, turned part and placed a spoon in my mouth. It was at that moment that Khayrah’s father cleared his throat.

I willed myself to swallow the food as I imagined what would come next. He never cleared his throat except that something big would be coming up.

“Taofeek?” he said in his usual high-pitch voice.

“Hmm?” I swallowed hard and turned towards him.

“I heard about a group Khayrah attends. A cancer support group. And I was wondering, why would she decide to attend such a group?”

“It’s a beneficial group. They talk about healing from pain…and she has also made friends from there…” I prattled.

“Friends that die every day like chickens? Friends that remind her that she would die soon? I heard she was very sick when she lost a dear friend few months back. What’s his name again…yes…Tijani. I think she gains nothing from attending such a group,” he blurted out and the air felt still for a minute.

Everyone was quiet save for the occasional clacking of spoons against the ceramic plate and peering eyes that travelled questioningly amongst ourselves.

Khayrah’s mother chuckled nervously and broke the silence a minute later. “You made a good opinion, my dear, but why don’t you discuss this with Taofeek after the meal?”

“Yes, fabulous idea,” Khayrah smiled.

My phone buzzed in my pocket and I picked it up hurriedly. Since my financial situation grew worse, I’d had the fetish for checking my phone repeatedly as if someone would suddenly consider to send me money and I would receive a credit alert.

Surprisingly, it was the credit alert I had been yearning from. But…it was from someone I never expected. It was from Khayrah’s father!

Stealing glances at them, I noticed Khayrah and her mother glanced at me and looked away immediately. I knew at once what had happened. Khayrah had told her mother about my financial condition. Her mother had asked her husband for help. Khayrah’s father had sent the money and he hadn’t stopped to wonder if I could really cater to the needs of his daughter.

My legs felt wobbly and I gulped a cup of water. My forehead had beads of sweat and my hands shook unusually. I felt ashamed and unworthy of being a husband. I could eat no more with several thoughts going on in her father’s mind.

“Excuse me,” I said politely as I walked out of the dining room.

I headed towards the balcony and inhaled the fresh air that swept the surrounding. Tears burnt my eyes as I replayed the scenario over and over again in my head. Was Khayrah’s father indirectly mocking me by asking those questions? How would her family see me? As a husband who cannot cater to his family’s needs? Why would Khayrah tell her mother about my financial situation? Why do I have to be wayward before now? If I didn’t have children out of wedlock to cater for, wouldn’t my life be simpler?

“Darling,” Khayrah called as she joined me in the balcony.

I didn’t respond. I was infuriated. She shouldn’t have told her parents. She shouldn’t have. We could have worked it out as a family.

My face softened a bit as Khayrah hugged me at the back. “I’m sorry, my love. I never knew it would happen this way. Even if you won’t tell me, I knew you were broke and I was just trying to help…”

“Trying to help?” I yelled as I removed her hands that surrounded my back and turned towards her with a glaring look. “I never asked for your help. Why did you tell your mother? Why?”

“You needed help but you were too proud to say it. You wouldn’t even tell me, your wife. And my dad is wealthy and always ready to assist us…”

I stifled a snort of laughter. “Always willing to help? Didn’t you witness what played out some minutes ago? He believes I married you because of his money.”

Khayrah frowned. “No, don’t say that. He doesn’t think so. I’m sure of that.”

“He does, and most people think so too! I’d overheard people in my street gossiping about me. They called me a fornicator who got married to a woman with a terminal illness because she’s from a wealthy home. People say this and that. They make assumptions about me. And you still want me to ask your father for help?”



Khayrah winced as a tear dropped on her cheek. “Who cares what people say? We both know how we feel for each other, Taofeek. You love me and I can feel it deep down my heart. I can never appreciate you enough for loving me despite knowing my health condition. I don’t care about your past because I trust my husband and I am certain that he would never cheat on me. So, who cares what anyone says? What matters is us. We shouldn’t stop loving and caring for each other every passing minute. And I think you’re making assumptions with regards to my father. Maybe he doesn’t show it but he appreciates you a lot. And he doesn’t think you’re a gold-digger. I’m a hundred percent certain. Please, darling, let’s leave all elements of doubts aside and fight all obstacles together. I want us to be a hundred percent sincere. You should tell me when you’re broke. I should tell you that Tijani has been appearing in my dreams.” Khayrah said as she looked away.

I gasped in surprise. “Tijani?”

She bit her lower lip nervously. “Yes.”

“How long has this been happening?”

“Four months. I’m sorry.”

I pulled her into a hug. “It’s okay. We’ll discuss that later. I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Khayrah replied when my phone started to ring.

“Oh, gosh! Why does this phone keep intruding on our special moment? Should I yank this object away?” her face broke into a joyful smile.

“Yes, let’s.” I chuckled as I checked the caller ID. It was an unknown number. I clicked on the answer button and pressed the phone to my ear. “Hello?”

“Surprise. Since you refused to pick my calls, now I’ve used a different number. I am in Nigeria! Come and pick me up at the airport, dad.”

“Aliyah?”

“Yes, Aliyah. Come and pick me up. I’m waiting!”

“Okay,” I muttered as I hung up the call.

“Aliyah is in Nigeria?”

“Yes, she just arrived. We should pick her up. What will we tell your family members?”

“We’ll sort it out.”

“Yes, we will,” I replied as we both laughed.
“Wait, I’ve got no appetite for the meal anymore. Can we visit a buka on our way to the airport?”

I looked up dazedly at her face. “You haven’t visited a buka before, like ever?”

Khayrah rolled her eyes. “Oh, please. Don’t mock me now. Let’s go.”

“You’re still the weirdest being I’ve ever met,” I snickered as we left the balcony.
***
While I drove to the airport, Khayrah kept talking about Aliyah…and children…and Aliyah…and children.

I knew she was nervous that Aliyah had returned. Khayrah had never been good with children…talk more than a teenager. I had spotted the anxiety appearing in her face since Aliyah made the call. But I’d missed Aliyah. I’d missed my first daughter. The one I’d held in my arms and wept tears of joy. I’d miss her vibrant laughter and angelic voice. I’d missed the way she would roll her eyes and pout her eyes whenever she wanted a thing from me. I’d missed Aliyah so much.

“…children are the gift of life. Yes, they can be trouble. But they are sweet and innocent…” Khayrah was saying as she opened another wrap of bubble gum and started to chew.

“I never loved children. I never even imagined living with them. But the day Aliyah had been placed on my hands and I just stared at the beautiful being cooing and wriggling her hands. And I fell in love with her that minute. Even when Jasmine dropped her and fled off, I gladly nurtured Aliyah till she grew up. It was hard but I tried my best to be a good father.”

Khayrah surveyed my face thoughtfully. “Is that why you couldn’t forgive her?”

“She left me and started staying with the woman that left her years ago, without prior notice. It hurt me deeply.”

Khayrah held my hand and rubbed it with care. “But she has realised her mistake. You ought to forgive her now.”

“I have forgiven her long ago. I just wanted her to know that what she did was wrong.”

“Okay,” Khayrah replied as I pulled into the parking lot.

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