NO one is better than you. We are all equal. That is how God made us all: equal.
She always trusted her mother’s words. She grew up thinking of them as words filled with wisdom. But this morning, after she has mopped Headmaster’s office, the teacher’s staff room and staff toilet, and after she had assisted the primary two pupils to sweep their classroom right after sweeping the primary one classroom, and was looking forward to a moment’s rest inside the staffroom, she’d discovered that maybe her mother hadn’t been so right in her talk about God creating every one as equals.
Or maybe she never encountered someone like Miss Lovett, the primary four teacher.
“What are you doing, Ndubuisi?” She asked her when she entered the staffroom.
“Nothing.” Ndubuisi was puzzled by the question.
“Why are you here then?” Miss Lovett persisted in her voice that sounded like one talking through their nose.
“I want to rest a while.” As she stared at her, Ndubuisi wondered if she’d bought her skirt suit from Onitsha. Clothes of such superior quality weren’t always seen here in the village or at Idemili.
“Rest?” Miss Lovett raised her trimmed and pencil lined eyebrows. “Here?”
Ndubuisi puzzlement grew. But she nodded to the question.
“In the teachers’ staffroom?”
It began to dawn on her. “Yes. I’ve finished my work and thought I can sit on that empty chair.” She pointed to the wooden chair at the corner with one wobbly leg.
“Did Nkiru tell you she used to sit inside the staffroom?”
From the table, Miss Iheoma let out a mocking laugh at this question.
They were making fun of her, Ndubuisi realised and was embarrassed. But because it wasn’t a treatment alien to her, she met Miss Lovett’s eyes squarely. “No, Nkiru did not tell me she used to sit here after her work. She and I did not have a chance to talk before I resumed today. I only assumed that since that chair wasn’t being used, I can sit on it when I am not working.”
“You assumed wrongly, Ndubuisi. This is a teachers’ staffroom, meant only for teachers. You are not a teacher, are you?” She looked at her from head to toe while Miss Iheoma sniggered again.
Ndubuisi swallowed the tightness in her throat. “No, I am not a teacher. I am a cleaner. I will leave now. I’m sorry I intruded where I should not have.”
She was never going to like that high-pitched nasal tone, Ndubuisi realised. But still she turned and answered. “Yes, Miss Lovett?”
“You can take the chair with you.” She gestured with a flick of her right hand at the chair. “I believe Nkiru used to place it under that pear tree and sit there.”
“No, thank you.” She did not need the chair, not anymore. “There’s a tree stump beside the pear tree, I will use it as seat.” She turned again.
“I am not done, Ndubuisi.” Miss Lovett stopped her exit.
Ndubuisi slowly turned. “Yes?”
“I need akara from Mama Uzo across the road. Here.” She held out a hundred naira note. “Buy me fifty naira’s worth and a bottle of water from the store opposite. Bottle water, please, not sachet water.”
Ndubuisi stared at the outstretched hand. So, she was to be errand girl for the teachers too? Where again was the equality her mother had talked about?
Swallowing her pride and her pain at the feeling of degradation, she walked forward and took the money from Miss Lovett. Then turned to Miss Iheoma. “Would you too be needing anything, Miss Iheoma?”
The woman, no older than her by one or two years, treated her to a superior stare. “When I want something, I will call you.”
“Very well.” Ndubuisi turned again. And this time, she made it through the door without being stopped.
This was her life now. A cleaner and errands girl to the teachers. What had she expected, that she would be treated as a part of a team?
Yes, she’d expected that. Had wanted that, Ndubuisi honestly acknowledged. She had thought it would be like their compound where everyone was like an equal and she was treated with respect and a certain level of affection. But this wasn’t their compound, and she wasn’t part of the team. She was the cleaner and so belonged to a lower cadre.
It was all right. She didn’t come here anywhere to seek friends or good treatment. She came to work and she will do her work and earn her pay.
SHE had, before break time, filled the plastic water tank by the staff toilet—twice, ran several errands, once for Headmaster, twice for Miss Lovett and Miss Iheoma respectively, and once for Mrs Obi—the only one who’d asked her to buy a bottle of coke for herself with her change.
Ndubuisi was drinking that bottle of coke now, seated on that tree stump under the pear tree and taking a rest her sore muscles were grateful for.
“Why are you sitting here?”
She glanced over her shoulder. It was Magnus. He was looking at her with a questioning expression. The starched linen shirt tucked into his grey coloured trousers was still as wrinkle free as it had been when she’d seen him at the Assembly ground in the morning.
He looked like a teacher, Ndubuisi thought, and her mouth smiled because that was exactly what he was. “It is break time and I am taking my break like everyone else.”
“Hmm.” Magnus moved his eyes to a group of children playing ten-ten not afar of the pear trees. He stared at them only briefly before he looked at her again. “But why not in the staffroom? Why take your break out here under the tree?”
“The staffroom is meant for teachers.” He smelled of perfume. But not the kind she used to smell on her father. This one was better, smelt more expensive.
“The staffroom is meant for the staff.” He corrected. “You should sit there when you have no work to occupy you.”
“I prefer sitting here.” She now knew her place and would not overstep again. “Do you want chin-chin?” She held up the cellophane wrapped snack she’d bought for twenty naira.
“Not really. But so you don’t think me discourteous, I will have two.” He dipped his fingers into the cellophane and pulled out two cube-shaped pieces. “How are you finding the work? Hope it’s not too tedious for you? You actually have the look of a woman who shouldn’t be doing hard work.”
“Oh.” He might mean that she was too thin but Ndubuisi chose to allow the feeling of pleasure at his words. “I’m stronger than I look and though it’s a little stressful, I am not grateful for the job to complain. I have stayed too long without work not to appreciate the one I’ve been blessed with.”
“That is good, your positive spirit.” He gave an approving smile. “Well, I must return to class. I do have to take primaries four and five in computer after break and must cross check my notes.” He made a noise with his tongue. “Not much good it will do them, learning about computers without having one to practice with, but that is what we have to deal with here. We can only do our duties in the limited manner that we can, not so?”
“Hmm.” Since his duties were completely different from hers, Ndubuisi only offered that sound of agreement.
“By the way, Headmaster helped me find a lodge at Odinaka’s compound, two rooms. I am thinking of travelling next weekend to Nsugbe to get the electronics I used there. With no salary yet, I must be thrifty with the little I have in my account.” He smiled, drew out a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his hands. “I will see you again, Ndubuisi. Take care.”
“Take care.” Ndubuisi repeated and watched him walk towards the senior classes’ building, one hand inside his pocket as he returned his handkerchief there.
He had the measured strides of a meticulous man. He walked with purpose and precision. He didn’t seem in a hurry. Yet, his footsteps weren’t dragging either. At least, he didn’t think her beneath him to talk to, Ndubuisi thought and brought the bottle of coke to her mouth to finish its content.
WHEN school dismissed, she joined the children going in the direction of the market square in their trek home, their energetic sprits not deflated by the sun blaring its biting rays on them. Ndubuisi envied them their energy and their absolute unconcern for the burning heat of the sun.
Adaugo was finishing off on Chiamaka’s hair when she walked into her stall. “Working class woman.” She hailed her. “How was your first day at work?”
“Not easy.” Ndubuisi gratefully sat on the bench, bringing out one cotton piece to wipe off the sweat beads that coated her forehead. “These teachers are not easy to work with oh. Do this for me, do that for me. It’s only Mrs Obi and Magnus who treated me like I was a human being like them.”
“Magnus.” Adaugo looked up from the last part she was threading. “So, he’s treating you nice, eh?”
Her voice carried a note of suspicion, but Ndubuisi only shrugged. “Yes, he’d friendly.”
“Friendly.” Adaugo sniffed. “Oh. Chiamaka, your hair’s done.” She announced, stepping back to pick a mirror which she passed to the young girl.”
Chiamaka, a senior student at the secondary school in Idemili, peered into the hand held mirror, craning her neck this way and that way, until satisfied, she handed back the mirror to Adaugo. “Aunty, thank you.” She greeted, bringing out money to pay for the hairdo.
“Greet your mother for me.” Adaugo bade her, then bent over to start clearing up her work station. “Obiora and Osita will soon be here. They want us to join them to watch home videos at Obiora’s house.”
“You mean we are not going home straight?”
“Mba, we are going to Obiora’s.” Adaugo straightened up to eye her. “What is wrong with that? Why are you frowning? You have come with me to Obiora’s house before, haven’t you?”
Yes, she has. Obiora was… well, Adaugo’s man. Boyfriend sounded so like a childish term. He has declared his intention to marry Adaugo and had already gone to see Adaugo’s parents in their village. She didn’t have a problem with Obiora, it was Osita she wasn’t quite comfortable with his anticipated presence.
She’d only met him for the first time a few days ago when they’d gone to Idemili to shop for clothes. He owned a provisions store there, and Adaugo had told her that he had a big cassava farm too. He had shown instant interest in her and though Ndubuisi wasn’t sure why, she hadn’t liked it.
“It’s just that I am very tired and was hoping to eat and take a nap when we get home.” She gave the excuse with the foreknowledge that it wouldn’t thwart Adaugo’s set plans.
“We are going there to watch movies, eat nkwobi and relax not do some hard labour.” Adaugo dismissed her excuse. “And here they come. Put a smile on that your face before they think I have given you some undeserved beating.”
Ndubuisi pasted on the smile on but focused it on Obiora, completely avoiding eye contact with Osita.
“Ndu, you’re here already.” Obiora greeted her. “How was your first at Headmaster’s school? Hope it was not bad?”
“It was good, Obiora. Good afternoon.” And because she couldn’t greet one and not the other, she made herself look at Osita. “Good afternoon, Osita.”
“Ndu, how are you?” He smiled at her. Where Obiora was stout with pronounced muscles, he was taller, almost lanky and with a finer face that held a chin beard. “I made Obi buy a comedy home video, I hope you will like it?”
“I am worried I may be too tired to watch a movie.” There was no smell of perfume on him, Ndubuisi noticed that and wished she didn’t feel like it was a count against him. “I feel like my bones are begging me to stretch them out and not put them through any effort for the rest of the day.”
“Then we must leave.” Obiora said. “Ada, let me help you chain up your benches.” And bending, he swiftly chained the two benches and the single wooden chair to the iron pillar, then took Adaugo’s hand in his. “Let’s go. I requested Udodirim to send over fufu and ofe-oha by two-thirty, let’s hurry, so her girl doesn’t miss us.”
Not wanting her hand clasped or to walk side by side with Osita, Ndubuisi kept abreast with Adaugo and Obiora and blatantly refused to acknowledge the covert looks Adaugo was throwing at her. She didn’t know why she thought of Magnus in his starched linen shirt and his nice perfume, but she did, and it made her wish Osita would stop looking at her.