HER entire first week working in the school had been an experience. That was how she saw it—a chance at a new experience. An experience, especially when it was new, was not always a happy one. It wasn’t always an exciting one. What it was, was fresh and, if you were willing and open of heart and mind, inspiring.
She had learned much from her first week as a cleaner in the village’s primary school. Most of her lessons surrounded human nature and behaviour. As the faces of men differ, so indeed did their nature. And as you would not expect one to look like the other, so you should not expect them to act the same.
She had had snatches of conversations with Magnus. He liked—and Ndubuisi liked to think that it was liking that made him come to the pear tree most break periods to talk with her. Their conversations always ended same way; he had class lessons to prepare for and so must leave her. She did same thing each time he walked away, stare after him in silent admiration.
She thought him the friendliest teacher in the school. Not the kindest, for he never offered her anything or shared anything with her, and indeed she did not expect him to. But he ate whatever she offered and he came, every break period, to keep her company for the shortest period of time.
Adaugo still scoffed when she mentioned his name. And she had wondered aloud—wondered aloud because she’d wanted her to hear her pondering—why it was he never acknowledged her when his fellow teachers were present.
She had not thought about it. It was only the first week of both of them working in the school and she was too grateful for his friendliness to examine a lack.
Since the cock owned by Nnebuogo announced again the break of dawn, she shuffled off her mattress, straightened the bed cloth and knelt briefly in prayer.
She had no wish to sleep-in even though she had carried out the tasks of cleaning up her room when she’d returned from school yesterday and washing her dirty clothes and some of Adaugo’s. There was nothing for her do this morning but she had learned never to linger in bed after the break of dawn.
In the absence of rain the last few days, the puddle of water in front of the yard had dried up and has left behind caked muddy earth. Nnanna, at his mother’s bellows, would drag broom over it later in the morning. It would not make a difference, she thought, what they needed was the yard to be cemented. Or at least stones spread over it.
“Ndubuisi, you’re up this early morning.” Nnebuogo came out of the bathroom. Her wrapper was neatly knotted underneath one large arm and her towel hung on her head like a scarf. “You are not going to school today, are you?”
“Of course not, today is Saturday. I woke up early because I am accustomed to doing so but I have no plans at all to go out.” Even as the words left her mouth, Ndubuisi knew her error. Nnebuogo would take advantage, for she never missed an opportunity to do so.
“You deserve the rest, my sister.” Nnebuogo’s sigh both sympathized with and envied her. “I wish I can stretch out on my back like you and close my eyes all day today but Ude want us all joining him in the market at Igbodo. He is harvesting his corn this morning and has chosen Igbodo as his point of sale. So, it’s going to be a busy day for us all.”
“At least the busyness would yield you fruits.” Ndubuisi consoled and hefted up her bucket of water.
“That is true, my sister.” Nnebuogo shifted one foot as if to move aside from the bathroom door but stayed put. “It is who will handle Ekene for me I am worried about now. Having him with me in the market is going to be distracting.”
“Nnebuogo, good morning. Ndu, did you sleep well?” That Adaugo chose that very moment to call out her greeting was not a coincidence. Ndubuisi knew that.
And she also heard the warning that was subtle behind the words she directed at her.
“Adaugo, you too have woken up. Good morning.” As if Adaugo’s appearance demanded it, Nnebuogo moved away from the bathroom’s doorway. “How was your night?”
“We thank God.” Adaugo spat something from her mouth and then started forward towards the tap. “I heard Ude leaving quite early this morning. Hope nothing is amiss?”
“Nothing at all. He is harvesting his corn today and has taken his boys with him to the farm to begin the process. It is what I was discussing with Ndubuisi before you came out.” Nnebuogo re-knotted her wrapper even though it had not loosened. “I am hoping she would be kind enough to watch over Ekene whilst the rest of us join their father in Igbodo.”
“Ndubuisi and I have plans today.” Adaugo said the lie without any alteration to her tone.
“Do you?” Nnebuogo looked at her, then back at Adaugo. “But she had told me she had no plans to go anywhere today. Biko nu, Adaugo, if you are planning on taking her somewhere, leave it for another day, let her help me out today. Biko.”
“Well, if she has told you she has no plans already, then it means she has made up her mind to cancel ours. I wish you market success, Nnebuogo. Let me go inside to warm my soup.” Adaugo took her cup of water and retreated into her room.
She was angry with her, Ndubuisi knew and sighed at her own inability to evade Nnebuogo’s cunning ways. But there was nothing wrong in helping her mind Ekene when she had nothing to do, was there?
“Let me bathe.” She said to Nnebuogo and entered the bathroom with another sigh.
“WHEN will you ever learn, Ndu?” Adaugo asked when she came into her room.
Ndubuisi glanced at the boy his mother had dumped half an hour ago and sighed. “Maybe never. But he’s no trouble really. He’s sleeping now and when he wakes, he will eat the food Nnebuogo left and play.”
“Then he will poo and you will clean up after him and soothe him when he cries.” Adaugo’s tone was cross. “I don’t mind the boy myself, or any of her children for that matter. But when have you ever needed help and she offered it if there was no gain? And more so, why doesn’t she drop off the child with her own mother? After all, she lives only at the other end of the village.”
“And complains unendingly about the children when she spares the time to come here to see them.” Which had only been twice in the ten months Ndubuisi had lived in the house.
“She can only complain but would she kill her own grandchild?” Adaugo made an impatient noise. “It’s not bad to help her out but I’ve not seen her selflessly help anyone in this yard. Not even you, her chief babysitter. Anyway, I am going to the market. Change that dress you’re wearing, biko, and wear something nicer. Osita is coming to see you and there’s no need to give him the impression that you don’t look after yourself.”
“Osita is coming to visit me?”
“And why do you think I let Nnebuogo get her way this morning?” Adaugo sniffed and pinched her nose. “He likes you and you know it. There’s no need to be coy.”
“I am not being coy, Adaugo. He should have informed me and not you that he wanted to visit me.”
“He didn’t plan to come here. He wanted me to bring you to the market square with me. But since you are playing babysitter…” Adaugo shrugged and stepped out of the room. “He will not bite and Obiora promises that he is a gentleman, so relax.”
“But what does he want from me, eh?”
“To drink palm wine and belch, what else?” Adaugo hissed and gave her a reproving stare. “Stop this your excessive naïveté, Ndu. Of course, it’s clear what a man wants from a woman he’s eyeing. This one is not Onyema oh, so be open-minded. Inu go?”
“Stop butting. I am going.” Adaugo gave her a wave and started off.
Ndubuisi stared after her in moody silence, and when she realised she could do nothing else, she sighed and withdrew into her room.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like Osita. She had enjoyed his company that day at Obiora’s house and she had enjoyed the attentive way he listened to her and talked to her. But…
That was it, there was a ‘but’ and that but was being caused by Magnus. Adaugo did not think a man like him—an educated teacher who had gone to higher institution—would truly be interested in her. But he chatted with her, and she liked the smell of his perfume.
Ndubuisi let out another sigh and stretched out on the mattress beside a softly snoring Ekene. Foolish talk, her mother would call her shallow reasons for liking Magnus. But they were all the same true and when Osita arrived just after midday, the first thing she noticed was that his body still lacked that perceptible nice odour.
“Welcome.” She offered him seat on her mattress. It was the only sitting furniture in her room. Mercifully, Adaugo had gifted her with a new bed cloth, so it looked presentable enough.
It did not shame her that he saw the pathetic state of her room. This was all she could afford and she took pride in what her today brought as much as she would take pride in what tomorrow would bring.
“This is for you.” Osita held out to her a large black polythene bag.
Ndubuisi glimpsed provisions inside but still asked. “What is it?”
“A small gift for you.” He smiled like he was self-conscious. “Do not refuse it, please Ndubuisi, for it would mean so much to me if you accept it.”
“But I was not expecting anything.” It worried her to accept a gift from him. She did not want it to be taken as commitment to anything. “I was not expecting you.”
“I ask your forgiveness on that. I was so impatient to see you that I did not consider how my unannounced visit might offend you.”
“I am not offended, only surprised.” Ndubuisi corrected. And because he still held out the bag to her and his eyes were imploring, she accepted the bag with a smile of appreciation. “Thank you. It is gracious of you to think of me.”
He nodded and looked at Ekene. “The little one is fast asleep.”
“He woke up to eat his breakfast and after a little play, went back to sleep.” She spread an old newspaper on the ground and sat on it. “He is my neighbour’s son. They, she and the rest of her family, went to Igbodo to sell their corn and Ekene here would have been in the way if they had taken him along.”
“You’re kind to have accepted to look after him, many wouldn’t.”
Ndubuisi shrugged off the compliment. “It’s no trouble. I would offer you a drink but my house is bare of any at the moment.”
“I am all right, you need not trouble yourself.” He assured her with a smile. “You have weaved your hair a new style. This one suits you better.”
Ndubuisi patted the side of her head where a string of cornrows fell. “It is Adaugo spoiling me. She had this one done just two evenings ago, ignoring all my protests that the former had not worn out its beauty.”
“I like this one.”
“Thank you.” Ndubuisi shifted her gaze. It sort of unsettled her the way he sat there and watched her like his eyes were supposed to be telling her something.
Well, if they were, she was refusing to read their message.
“Obiora would be bringing Adaugo to know my place tomorrow after church. Would you be coming with your friend?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” Although Adaugo had not mentioned it but she was she sure to try to persuade her to come along when she did.
“I would like you to come, Ndu. I enjoy your company.” When she sent him a quick glance, he only smiled. “I am buying a cockerel this evening and it will serve for stew tomorrow. I know most women like rice.”
“Do you cook?”
“Very well. I am my mother’s only son and she did not spare me.”
Ndubuisi was impressed. Her half-brothers did not do house chores and they definitely did not enter the kitchen. The latter was according to their father’s rule, and the first, the profit of their mother’s indulgence.
“I don’t mind rice. Although I prefer fufu with soup.”
“And who would think you prefer such heavy food looking at you.”
She raised her head, noted his teasing smile, and laughed. “I am hopelessly thin by nature. I fear nothing would ever fatten me up.”
Silence reigned for a short while, then he rose to his feet. “I have seen you, Ndu, let me be on my way. I hope I see you tomorrow. I shall also be buying some home videos for entertainment. Please come with Adaugo.”
“Maybe I will.” She escorted him to the door. “Thank you for the provisions, Osita. God bless you.”
“Amen.” He stared at her. It was as if he longed to say something but was stopping himself from doing so. Finally, he smiled. “See you, Ndubuisi.”
“See you, Osita.” She waited until he turned before she closed the door.
What did he want from her, she had, in her irritated apprehension, asked Adaugo. It was clear what he wanted. It was also clear to her that she wanted something entirely different.
Lowering on the mattress, she drew close the polythene bag and started to unload it. There were more things than she had glimpsed. Way more than she had believed there was. Many of which it had been long years since she had last tasted. She saw the envelope at the bottom of the bag and brought it out.
It contained money. Ten pieces of two hundred naira note.
Ndubuisi felt the warm feeling of gratitude and wished it was accompanied by something else. But that was life, one could never tell one’s heart what to feel. Or for whom to feel it.