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Kemi mentioned it on Friday night, simply to tell him something amusing, to entertain him whilst he made them a Thai red curry for dinner. She hadn’t particularly planned on saying anything.
“The bank accidentally put three million pounds into my account today.”
He was debating with himself over whether to add baby sweetcorn. She bought them. He didn’t really like them, to him they were worse than tasteless; they watered down the taste of everything else. But he forgot to buy mange tout and there wasn’t much else in the pot besides chicken.
Kemi was a bit disappointed that her story didn’t get much of a reaction, but such was life. She pulled out her account folder from her work bag, and settled onto the sofa, in front of Strictly Come Dancing.
Oli stirred the curry.
“What was that? Did you say the bank put money into your account?”
She flicked across to something else.
“Yeah, what are the chances eh?”
He turned off the stove under the curry and went over to her. He sat down on the sofa, his left foot tucked under his right thigh.
“Did you keep the receipt?” His voice caught at the end of the sentence, as if saying the words would make any tangible evidence disappear into smoke.
“Of course, you know I always do,” Kemi replied. Oli often teased her that the ‘advice’ slip should say ‘Stop spending so much money on make-up Kemi’ rather than a statement of her balance.
She fished into her bag for the little square piece of paper, secretly pleased her story had generated some attention.
Oli stared at the paper with goggle eyes.
“You know you can keep this, right?”
“Whatever, Oli, I’m not that gullible.”
“Kemi…” Oli’s chest was visible growing and shrinking as he took deep breaths in and out. “I’m serious, it’s true, you can keep it.”
“Even I know that’s an urban myth.”
Oli snatched his laptop from the floor beside the sofa. He typed furiously on the keyboard.
“Here, look, see for yourself.”
Kemi didn’t want to go along with it, but he pushed the computer under her face.
“It’s your money now Kemi.”
She read the page, but didn’t say anything.
“The internet is awash with rules about giving it back, that’s what the banks want you to believe is the law, but actual law says the bank can’t take it back unless you agree to voluntarily release it.”
Kemi didn’t want the hope to seep in, but she could feel it, almost as if a small army of ants were slowly crawling through a crack under the door.
“It happened to Lola. Hers was only £6,000 but she knew the law.”
Lola was Oli’s cousin. She worked for the National Audit Office.
“You can ask her yourself.”
“Come on Oli, don’t be silly, how would Barclay’s let us keep millions of pounds that didn’t belong to us?”
Even as she said those words a quiet voice was saying “me”… “why would Barclay’s let me keep millions of pounds…”
Oli stood up, he paced around the living room, his bare legs in their boxers at Kemi’s eyeline.
“Kemi, you’re not getting it! It’s up to you, you can give it back if you want, or you can keep it, that’s the law. They can’t force you, no matter what they try and make you believe.”
“I wouldn’t want to make a fuss.”
“Are you serious? For three million pounds, you don’t want to make a fuss?”
She was tired of the conversation. She crossed their open plan living room to the kitchen, and turned on the stove. Within minutes the curry was bubbling again.
She didn’t wait for an answer. She opened the plastic pouch with her teeth, as she did.
Whilst the rice was in the microwave her brain fought with insistent thoughts telling her that he might be right. They seeped slowly into her mind like water poured into the earth of a plant pot.
She plated their food.
“This could be a game changer for us, Kem,” Oli said, taking his steaming plate.
It would, Kemi thought. They would properly be able to afford their flat for one thing. She felt guilty every time the rent came out of their joint account. A cheaper place would have been more sensible. Perhaps in a less bijou part of the city.
They ate their food in silence on the sofa.
Oli let Kemi watch her pick. American drag queens gave makeovers to posh Brits in the countryside. Kemi thought Oli secretly enjoyed it, but he didn’t, he hated it.
Oli stroked Kemi’s skin, recently moisturised for the evening. She was curled up next to him like a cat.
“What would you do with it, theoretically?”
Kemi was lulled into a reality TV haze. She spoke without thinking.
“Pay back what I owe, I suppose.”
His muscles beneath her stiffened, and she awaited the tight tone his voice would take next.
“Your NatWest card?”
“Yeah,” she said, too quickly.
“Or something else?” he failed to sound casual.
“I also owe my ex.”
She never lied when asked a direct question.
“We dated a couple of years ago.”
She didn’t want to continue talking.
“What would you do?” she asked, changing the subject as fast as she could. She didn’t want to talk about Paul.
“What everyone else would do,” he said. “Give up work and enjoy life.”
She blinked. “You’re not enjoying your life now?”
“I didn’t mean you, I meant work. No one enjoys their job, do they?”
She always thought he did.
“What do you wish you did instead?”
“I dunno. Never really thought about it.”
He got up from the sofa and reached a hand back towards her. “Bed?”
Kemi sat on their bed, winding her hair into two plaits for sleep.
Oli placed his phone in her lap. She looked down at it. It showed two texts, one from his cousin Lola and one from him.
It definitely did happen! I kept the whole damn lot. You should have seen the bank manager’s face. But I went to Bali, so who cares!
Thanks Loll, I’ll let Kem know.
The seed of hope became a fully grown tree within a second. The very thought of being an instant millionaire was too large for Kemi’s brain. It pushed against the sides of her head, straining to be released.
She didn’t realise she was gasping for breath until she felt Oli’s hands clutch her waist.
“It’s O.K Kemi. We don’t have to think about it now, let’s wait until we have it confirmed, O.K?”
She agreed, but the tree was still there.
“I could be free?” she said in whisper. She didn’t know who she was talking to; Paul, Oli or herself.
“Come on babes, bed. Tomorrow is another day.”
Kemi obliged and let herself be led into the covers.
She curled up against the tree trunk of a brand new tree, one different to any tree she had known before, one whose branches gave her shade. The shade felt like peace.
Kemi woke up before Oli and went for a run. On the way home, she checked her account again. The money was still there. She withdrew £100 and spent £15 without guilt on fancy coffees for herself and Oli.
“How comes you never told me you don’t like your job?” she asked him as she put jam and butter in his croissant. She licked some stray jam from her thumb.
“Are you going to keep the money?” he replied. “What’s the point in talking about it if you’re giving it back?”
“We’re keeping it,” she said. “If we can. Engine design is your dream job. That’s what I thought.”
“I’m tired Kem,” Oli said. He sagged against the kitchen countertop. He pulled at the bobbles in his old joggers without seeing them. “I’ve been at Thatchers for four years.”
“I thought you were out of debt? Did you lie on our car loan? You didn’t declare it then.”
“The money wasn’t from the bank, Paul spent it for the both of us.”
Kemi prayed that the money in the bank was indeed hers. Theirs.
“What the?!! Kemi!”
His open mouth was panting and his eyes were that of a stranger’s.
“I should have told you, I know I should. I didn’t want to spoil things, and then…” she stopped talking, helpless.
He had to understand; it was what people did, when they started a relationship. They waited. The ugly mistakes from the past could come later.
“What was it for?”
“It doesn’t really matter.”
“Kemi.” His voice was a dark warning.
The ground she treaded on was a fragile landslide.
“Stuff… clothes…holidays… and…” She had to tell him everything, although it wasn’t nothing, like she just said. “IVF.”
He left her in the kitchen. He didn’t bother to get changed, or put on a jacket. He just went out the front door in his old, tattered joggers.
She spent the next few hours in front of the T.V. She was supposed to go to a spin class and then join some friends at the farmer’s market, but she didn’t want to leave the flat in case Oli came back.
She flicked through the Saturday afternoon offerings. Half her mind was on Oli, and the other half was on what a new life might look like. The travel adds were no longer just beautiful pictures, but were now suggestions for how could life her life. She could get a beach-front house in Ghana, visit her grandmother, only spend summers in the U.K. Oli wouldn’t like that. But maybe he didn’t have to join her.
With three million she could set up a new company. She thought of all the passions she had packed away over the years. For the first ones (make up artist, fashion designer) she had help from her parents. They showed her how to place them into the soft tissue paper of realism, and then squeeze the lid of lowered expectations on top of them. The next few, marine biologist and animal handler, were chased away with the help of teachers and school friends. She then learnt to do it by herself. Media strategist and lifestyle entrepreneur were mummified and buried under layers of envy, low self-esteem and tiredness. She had become a pro. With money, if they got it, she could do anything. She had no idea what Oli would want to do career wise.
She went to the window, as if the act of looking over their car park would summon him from wherever he had stormed off to. All she could see was a chocolate wrapper being blown about on the pavement.
She noticed the time. They were supposed to be at an event for her work. It was her responsibility to greet the high end guests. Oli promised to join her. She got dressed and left. Let him sulk. She had enough notes to get a cab home.
When she got back to the flat Oli was on his GameStation. She was drunk. She took off one shoe and threw it at his head. She was relieved when it missed. But she was still angry.
“You don’t even care that I went through the worse time of my life!” she yelled. “IVF was hell!”
He tried to come over to her, but she didn’t let him. She didn’t want his pity. She stumbled along the corridor to her bed, lopsided from only having only one heel. He was shouting after her, but she didn’t hear. She closed their bedroom door.
He pushed it open.
“How can you keep something like that from me? You know I’ve always wanted kids!”
She didn’t know. He’d never brought up the subject.
“Oli, please, just leave me alone.”
“I want to have choices too you know,” he said on his way out.
On Sunday morning Oli gently stroked her awake.
“It doesn’t matter what you owe Kemi,” he whispered. He leaned over her, his weight on her back and his arms threading under her. “You can give it back now. We’ll start afresh.
She was hungover, and not ready to wake up. She wanted to push him off, but he was calling a truce.
“Do you really mean that?”
They drove to Sainsbury’s for their weekly shop. Kemi broke the silence between them by pointing out a couple bickering over where to leave their trolley.
“The empty trolley station really isn’t that far away,” she commented.
“Next to a tree is perfectly acceptable,” Oli replied. “It’s not in anyone’s way.”
He locked up the car with a beep and strode off to get their own trolley. He wasn’t that interested in the arguing couple. Kemi followed.
Kemi resented the other shoppers who glided through the aisles, carefree and unburdened by her particular concerns.
Every three turns seemed to bring her to the edge of the baby care section. The shiny plastic bottles and containers in nursery colours taunted her.
She had never questioned whether she wanted a baby with Paul, it was just assumed. Regardless, the effort burnt their relationship to the ground. Maybe the three million could be a liberator from the past, allowing her to step over those ashes onto fresh grass. With Oli.
Zombie-like, they shuffled out of the shop with their buffata and teff, loaded their car, and returned home.
Oli loaded their cupboards and spread out the Sunday paper on the sofa. He bounced like a child with a new toy, grinning at Kemi whenever she caught his eye.
Oli held Kemi’s head and placed a kiss on her forehead.
“This is so exciting! Isn’t it?”
Kemi nodded. It was.
As she prepared lunch for a napping Oli she considered whether she would move flats when, if, the money came. What would three million pounds get them? Where? Was it better to buy something and live rent free, or continue to rent and have more money to spend? What if Oli disagreed over where to live? Three million pounds was enough for her own place and at least thirty thousand a year to live off for the foreseeable future.
She could finally take root and blossom like a fruit tree.
Who would have the final say? It should be Kemi, as it was her money. But it wasn’t really hers, it was the banks. That’s what Oli would argue.
On Monday, Kemi woke up with a knot in her stomach.
“I’m going straight to the bank,” she told Oli whilst waiting for her V60 to release her coffee. “I can’t survive a day in the office with the uncertainty hanging over me.”
Oli hugged her with overlapping arms, squeezing to transfer his support. “Of course, let’s go then.”
He put his wallet and keys into his back pocket. At the door he stood on his own, waiting for Kemi, who hadn’t moved from her V60, even though all the coffee had long arrived in the mug.
“Let’s go,” Oli said again.
Kemi found herself shaking her head. She downed her coffee and grabbed her tote from its chair. She patted his arm as she walked past him.
“I’ll go on my own,” she told him. “After all, it’s my account, and my money.”