Bí èkúté bá fara balẹ̀, á jẹ nínú owó ológbò.
If the rat can be reasonably calm (and patient), it would have a taste of the cat’s wealth.
“Have a good day at school, sweetie. Be good, okay?” Mummy said as she dropped me off.
“I will, and you too.” I said to her, kissing her on the cheek before I left the car.
“Mọ́remi,” she called and I turned back. She held her two of her fingers out and I came forward joining mine with hers.
“Be, good.” She said with more emphasis, her eyes locking mine. “No more fights.”
I was about to protest before she interrupted me. “Even if they deserve it, okay?”
“Okay.” I said, my head down. The intertwining fingers had been a thing since I was born, it was like a promise between us, one that was somehow more important than words, like an oath.
She drove off as she blew a kiss to me and I grudgingly caught it, shoving it into one of the pockets on my uniform.
I must’ve looked weird that day carrying that big bag over my shoulder but I didn’t care. Everyone here thought I was strange already.
I hurried up and passed the school gates with the other students as I greeted the security guard who gave me a friendly wink. I wasn’t sure what his name was but he always nice to me every time I passed, he always had a smile in store.
Mrs Anyanwu would have my head if I were late for the third time in a row this week and I just wasn’t ready for her trouble. So, I walked like hell was behind my heels, practically flying across the school courtyard. I froze as I noticed something that caught my eye. There was a shed at the far end of the school, just near the football field.
The thing was, I could have sworn that the shed wasn’t there the week before. It was like it had just appeared there. Someone bumped into me from behind and muttered something about me stopping in the way but my eyes were fixed on the shed. It was a broken thing, the walls long since defaced as it seemed to stand miserable and alone on the edge of the football field as if it was angry with everyone else.
Where had it come from?
I heard the school bell that signalled the beginning of the first period and I just went with it, maybe I was imagining things again. Mummy was always saying I had a hyperactive imagination.
Maybe it was all in my head.
I rushed with the flow of other students, all of us clad in our blue and white uniforms, the crowd swallowing me. I was tall, Nani always said, taller than all the girls and even most boys.
We all rushed into our various classrooms, all of us in SS3C walked with a different kind of purpose, a more urgent feeling boosting our steps.
We knew who we were about to face for what seemed like the umpteenth time. The new day had renewed our age-old war.
Mrs Anyanwu had that effect on her students. It wasn’t her beady eyes that were held prisoner by her obsidian glasses that scared us the most. Nor was it her clothes that were leeched of all form of colour, the same way her face was with emotion. It wasn’t even her limp that made her use her infamous walking stick which also doubled as a cane (beating wasn’t allowed in my school but if you ask me, Mrs Anyanwu practically ran the place). It was her voice that put the edge in you, that made your hairs stand. She never shouted, never raised her voice, and that was the fist thing you noticed about her, her walking stick, of course, being the last. She was definitely no older than her late forties but something about her being aged her all the way to the early sixties.
If there was one thing she hated more than rough hair, it was definitely late comers. And with my hair and coming late all the time, I was not her star student. She had threatened to throw me out of the school one time and when I had brought Nani to the PTA, she had threatened her too. With the cane.
I heard gist that she was actually one of the oldest teachers at Riverside and she had never ever missed a class. Even while she was pregnant, I heard, she still came in, almost like she didn’t have a five-month-old foetus in her.
I found it hard to even imagine her married, much less pregnant. It made her seem, I don’t know, maybe more human? And I preferred to have her in my mind as the hateful monster she was, it made despising her all the easier.
It wasn’t my fault I was always late, though, the boys always played football in the morning and I just used to stand and watch, my eyes glued to the ball, following it as it was kicked across, predicting where the ball would go next. I knew for a fact that I could take any of the boys on a one on one but I could never get my mother to allow me play in the mornings. By the time I caught myself, it was almost always too late to get to class on time.
Okay, so maybe it was my fault.
That day, I had to be better, the last time, Mrs Anyanwu looked like she’d have an aneurism if I pissed her off one more time. I even corralled my hair into a bun today to look, as she put it the week before, ‘presentable’.
I shuffled into the class and breathed a gasp of air I wasn’t even sure I was holding as I checked my watch and it was 8am on the dot, but it wasn’t Mrs Anyanwu that was standing in the class.
It was someone completely different, almost the opposite actually.
My eyes stayed on the tall lanky man as I went on to my seat on the third row from the front. I liked sitting there, it was close enough to the back to not be seen but close enough to the front where I could still listen with my full focus. I looked around the class shyly and everyone was quiet, their eyes all glued to the strange figure in the class. Even John, our self-proclaimed class clown was as quiet as dusk. Ebube and her gang that were always snickering and giggling were all surprisingly sober today, they too were taking in the sight.
We all seemed to have the same question on our minds, waiting for it to come to our lips: Who was this man and where was Mrs Anyanwu?
He looked young, maybe about twenty-three, with a playful smile hiding on his face. You could tell this was someone who liked to have fun. He wore a wine suit, with a bright red bow tie to match, the clothes fitting tightly along his slim figure. His hair was bald, a look complimented with his goatee. Despite all this, it was his eyes that drew me in.
They were bright and dark brown at the same time and it made looking at him almost dizzying. It reminded me, oddly of fire, the way the light hit them, making them crackle in a strange manner.
When everyone was done settling in, he let go of his clasped hands and smiled, his hands behind his back. “Good morning everyone,” he said, his voice was as smooth as velvet, with rich undertones so his voice filled the whole classroom without him even trying. “I’m sorry, Mrs Anyanwu won’t be around for a while, but—”
“Oh, thank God.” John said clasping his hand on his chest.
“But,” he continued, “I’ll be filling in for her as your substitute teacher and my name…” He trailed on, turning around to the white board, writing his name in bright red marker on the white board and then he turned back around to us, waving his hands along the name, smiling. “Is Mr Anisan but please, you guys can just call me Ani.”
He said this with another smile as he looked at all of us, each one of us his eyes lingering on.
“So,” he put his hands on his waist. “Any questions before we start uhm—” he went and got a notebook from his bag that was near his desk, flipping the pages. “Maths! Yes, maths. I love maths.” He said smiling to himself before he looked up to the rest of us.
“I have one, Mr Ani—” John raised up his arm, wriggling it to the point that I thought it would fall out of his arm socket but Mr Anisan gave him a look and he corrected himself. “Oh, sorry, Ani. Where are you from? Your name sounds really weird.” He said with the bluntness associated with only John.
Mr Anisan paused for a while as if considering. “Well, I’m from Ghana, John.” He said, smiling to himself as if he had just made a private joke.
And see, that’s when the red lights in my head began to shine. It was a little thing but nobody noticed it, it was like I was the only one seeing this man clearly and I was the only one who understood the significance of what just happened.
He had just called him by name but John had never introduced himself.
I couldn’t explain it then but something felt off about the man, it was like something deep inside me didn’t agree with him which was odd since he’d only made himself known for like, what, 5 minutes?
I tired to push the thoughts at the back of my head, but it stuck like super glue and I couldn’t shake it off.
“So,” he said, smiling at us, a smile so wide that it could’ve been fake and in the later days, I would realise that it, in fact, was. “Let’s get down to business.”
Time blurred during the class and despite my suspicions, he was actually a good teacher. Differentiation normally gave me a good solid headache for about two hours but he was able to explain it carefully using some funny illustrations that actually made us all laugh. He even finished thirty minutes earlier and used the rest of the class time to talk about his adventures, his time as a traveller and even the one time he fought with a cheetah.
After the class ended, everyone was buzzing, the one thing on everyone’s lips was Mr Anisan. I slugged my bag over my shoulder and walked with everyone as we went to our Chemistry lab practical. I was on my way along with everyone else, like usual, just talking over me, like I didn’t exist.
I was fine with it, though, not all the time but most times. It was with the class on our hallways lined with our school’s accomplishments that she caught up with me.
Miss Agnes was the second woman in this school who gave me hell and I feel she did it out of sheer boredom. She was a fifty something year old woman who found joy in reminding us all that our bodies were temples of Jesus and should be treated as such and that, and that and that.
Personally, I wasn’t religious and I had never seen mummy or Nani pray not to talk of going to church since I was born and I liked it like that. It seemed to be less stress.
“Mọ́remi!” Her shrill voice echoing across the entire hallway. “Since when did you become a prostitute? Will you drag that skirt down?”
I looked down at my pleated skirt and it was just at the middle of my knees and I hmphed. “But ma, it’s on my knees, isn’t that long enough?” I replied, stopping as everyone else continued walking, ignoring the drama, to most of them, I didn’t even exist.
“So, you’re just going around, exposing half your knees? Why are you trying to distract the boys?” She asked, shaking her head.
“They’re just knees, what’s so special about them? And why would boys be distracted by knees, how is that my problem?” I retorted, my fists balled. I was getting tired of always being told by all these people about how to dress and walk and speak. I just wanted, more than anything, to be comfortable in my own body. But I remembered the promise I made mummy, she hadn’t been talking about just students when she said no more fights. Teachers, I found, could be equally annoying, even more so.
“Because you are a woman!” She spat, this time, passers-by actually turned to look but fearfully shuffled away. Miss Agnes was a mad woman even on her good days. Pissing her off was never a good idea if you valued your general good health.
I thought of all the things I could have said as my face heated up, threatening to explode. I hated being shouted at and for something as silly as my own knees, it made me even angrier. I don’t know what would have happened because a masculine voice from behind me spoke, Miss Agnes looked over my shoulder and I turned around, just to see our principal, Mr Chinedu, but behind his back we all called him Chin Chin because of his large size.
“So, what’s going on? A student came to call me and said there was something happening?” He said, the moustache that rested on his lip twitched like a worm as he spoke. His bald head glinted in the overhead lights and the suspenders he wore looked like they should have been causing him some sort of physical pain.
“This insolent young girl was—” Miss Agnes began, already gearing up for a second rant.
“Agnes.” He said in a patronising stern voice, his eyes on me, or rather, my chest as he spoke. I felt uncomfortable and crossed my arms, my skin crawling, he did this with all the girls in school, even the ones in the primary school that sometimes came over with their teachers on trips.
Miss Agnes made a sound that was a cross between a growl and a snarl, storming off leaving me and Mr Chinedu.
“So, Mọ́remi, is it?” He put his stubby hands in his suit pockets.
“Yes.” I replied coolly, my arms still crossed, his eyes, still wandering. I felt disgusted at the whole thing, what kind of person was he?
“Hm, nice name,” he said with a sick smile. “You can go to your class now.”
I nodded my head and put my backpack lower on my back as I walked away from him, my feet flying on the ground as I caught up with the rest of the class. There was another headache, a brief flash of pain, but I winced and just pushed on.
I could feel his eyes behind me.