It was a chanting lesson – ‘good’, ‘better’, ‘best’; ‘lazy’, ‘lazier’, ‘laziest’; ‘costly’, ‘costlier’, ‘costliest’ and all other forms of ‘ers’ and ‘ests’ over and over again. Of course, Marshall ‘Blockhead’ Dike’s mouth was opening and closing like that of a dying tortoise. The whole thing was a joke! I mean, how difficult was it to see the link? That some words would have ‘more’ and ‘most’ as qualifiers and others would not? I couldn’t be bothered to join in but walking out of lesson was not an option so I rummaged in my desk locker for something to do or read; there was nothing. I had forgotten that I stopped leaving anything in there after it got broken into, ransacked and my books and stationery left strewn all over the classroom floor. I checked my school satchel instead and there was the geography textbook, (which I still wasn’t going to read), and the ‘Wise Sayings’ book.
At least I had a good excuse not to join in or I would be tempted to tape someone’s chanting mouth shut!
‘Good’, ‘Better’, ‘Best’, indeed!
All English teaching rooms had reading spaces at the back. Ours was no exception, thankfully. It had the ubiquitous raffia mats and beanbag but Limp Lettuce Obed had added a personal touch – a slightly, wilted bunch of hibiscus flowers in a clay vase, and an akwete cloth thrown over a rattan chair. I knew she wouldn’t object if leaving my desk meant sitting quietly at the back and reading book in hand. After all said and done, I was meant to read it, wasn’t I? Then summarise and write a report for our beloved Head teacher.
Ignoring the curious stares, I went to the back of the room, sprawled out on the akwete-covered rattan chair and was transported into a world where the syntax of the words seemed so incongruous yet made absolute sense…
‘Honesty is the best policy’,
‘Times were never good for lazy prodigals’; a world of…
‘ A rolling stone gathers no moss’ and ‘Hasty climbers have sudden falls.’
…the chanting faded into the background.
For the first time in a long time, I didn’t hear the ringing of the bell, signalling the end of a lesson. A gentle kick by Amazie brought me back.
“Are you alright, Blessing?” She squatted down, her face looking into mine with deep concern.
“Mmhmm,” I nodded and carried reading.
“The first bell has gone, Blessing. We have Geography next and Mrs Greenford will be teaching that lesson. Did you bring a rock sample?” She was pulling me up and hitching her school satchel up on her shoulder at the same time. I almost snapped at her for interrupting my journey into this world of weird and marvellous vocabulary but I stopped myself in time. It was Amazie after all not ‘Big-Mouth’ Mgb’orie. Speaking of Nkechi, I sought her out but she had left at the first bell. I wondered if she expected an apology from me.
Absent-mindedly, I reached into my school satchel and came up with nothing. Amazie shook her wise, owl head; she probably knew I didn’t have it but just wanted to be sure.
“Don’t worry, I have two. What are friends for, ehn?”
I gave her a quick hug. She looked startled. I wasn’t given to displays of affection or emotion except anger or resentment.
The hours sped by and the final bell went. Still no sign of Nkechi, as we headed to the school gate.
“Blessing! I’ve only just remembered! I have a Literary and Debating Society club meeting today!”
We said our goodbyes as I made a beeline for my mother’s car.
“How will you get home?” I called back at her.
“Manny’s older brother!” She shouted as she ran back to the classroom area.
Manny was her foolish neighbour; a year ahead of us but academically slower.
“Good afternoon, mum, Amazie has a club meeting today.” I slid into the passenger’s seat.
“Blé-Blé” An excited voice called from the backseat before my mum could respond.
“Ah-ah, Ncheta, you came with mum today.”
“Yes, Auntie and I had a few errands to run in town.” She kept the chatter flowing all the way home. I didn’t mind. I was pre-occupied with the book of wise sayings, the geography homework that Mrs Greenford gave us, and Nkechi ‘Big-Mouth’ Mgb’orie’s unusual lack of reaction.
My mum had barely pulled on the handbrake when I swung the car door open, jumped out and made for the front door.
“Aren’t you going to help Ncheta and I with the purchases?”
I halted, my body facing the door and my head turned back. The expression on my mum’s face was a sight to behold! She actually looked bewildered!
Bewildered!? My mum?
A woman that is never in two minds about anything?
I wanted to savour the moment, to make her pay for all that she’d put me through. Perplexity wasn’t a feeling associated with the woman but something made me stop.
This wasn’t the time.
I walked back to the car. In the boot was chicken feed and grass for the goats; there was also a bunch of semi-ripe plantains as well as a few tubers of yam, the peels of which would end up as food for the goats. I grabbed the bunch of plantains by its thick stalk and left the rest for Ncheta and my mum. Straight to the kitchen with the plantains, I dumped them in the pantry so they wouldn’t ripen too quickly, washed my hands, drank a glass of water from the tap and dashed into my room.
“Blessing, can you come to the table, please? The food is ready.”
I didn’t hear that.
I didn’t hear it the second or third time.
It was when my mum popped her head into my room to ask if everything was alright that I heard something – the rumbling of my empty tummy.
I looked up to see her staring at the book in my hand.
“Let me see that.”
I handed it over to her very, very reluctantly.
“I remember this book!” her voice deepened with nostalgia. My mother used to read it while she waited for us to get our hair plaited at the market. My goodness!” Her eyes took on a faraway look. By us, I presumed she meant herself and her numerous female relatives.
“I have an idea.” Her eyes snapped back to the present. She pulled me to her room, those eyes now twinkling with excitement. “Here, take this.” She thrust another book from her bookshelf into my hands.
FIRST AID IN ENGLISH by Angus Maciver.
First, she interrupts my reading; then, she gives me a book that I already have.
“Mum,” I struggled to keep the exasperation out of my voice, “I already have this book. You bought it for me remember? It was on our list of books for English, although mine is THE NEW FIRST AID IN ENGLISH.”
“I know, I know…”
“…and,” I cut her off, not caring how rude it was, “This is a textbook we’re studying at the moment – Comparatives and Super…”
She cut me off right back.
“…I know, Blessing, I know, but check page 108, it also has proverbs and wise sayings. In the meantime, you need to eat. You’ve been stuck in that room for hours.”
Anything to get her off my back so I could get back to my room and shut the world out.
After two helpings of jollof rice, fried goat meat and plantain, I returned to my room. On this rare occasion, my mum allowed me a bottle of Fanta; she even let me take it into my room to drink while reading ‘the book she gave me.’
“Just don’t forget to brush your teeth before you go to bed.”
As if I ever do.
‘The book she gave me’ only had ninety-one proverbs in comparison to the one the Head Teacher gave me. That one had over three hundred. I read all ninety-one in a matter of minutes; some featured in the other book, some did not. Unlike the wise sayings book, the proverbs in FIRST AID IN ENGLISH contained an average of six words per proverb…
– ‘Birds of the same feather flock together’.
– ‘Eavesdroppers hear no good of themselves.’
…not as intriguing as proverbs in the book of wise sayings laden with –
- ‘It is easier by paying debts out of an empty pocket than shaving an egg or pulling hairs out of a bald pate.’
- ‘Neither Tom nor Dick should like to be neighbours to a barrel of gunpowder.’
I felt myself dropping off a few times so I placed a book mark between the pages I was reading, went into the bathroom, brushed my teeth, changed into my nightgown and went back to my reading.
What felt like moments later, a blood-curdling scream woke me up.
It went on and on and on. It wouldn’t stop.