In the end, Resumption Check-in went exactly as Liz expected it to go. Mummy said “I told her” twelve times. Kathy and Lola went “missing” three times. Daddy barely said five sentences, and Liz almost snapped at the third aunty who “wondered” aloud why Janey was repeating SS2. By the time Janey and Liz were assigned their dormitories for the term, Liz was ready for a three-month break from every member of the Bello family that wasn’t Janey. Truly, absence made Liz’s heart grow fonder, or at least, less irritated.
“Remember the daughters of whom you are,” Mummy said by rote, the words falling from her lips as if she would violate some unspoken commandment if she didn't say them.
"Yes Mummy," Janey replied for both of them because Janey knew her sister wouldn't, and it was one of the many reasons Liz loved her.
Sporting twin expressions of displeasure as they climbed into the van, Kathy and Lola chorused, “Bye bye.”
“Bye,” Liz said with a half-smile at her twin sisters who were more upset at being pulled away from the action than not seeing Janey and her for the next three months.
With a wink and a smiling nod, Daddy turned on the engine and the gold-colored Honda Odyssey made its way through the emptying field.
Liz breathed a sigh of something-too-close-to-relief and slung a carefree arm around Janey’s shoulders, “Let’s go and see if Mary has come yet. She is supposed to bring Sweet Sensation ice cream for me. I don’t want it to melt, abeg.”
Jane laughed, her rhythmic laughter filling the air and warming Liz’s heart, “Nawa for your own kind of mother oh. Shouldn’t you be the one buying the ice cream?”
Liz kissed her teeth playfully, “Abeg, abeg, abeg, abeg, abeg. Go and find your own schooldaughter if it’s paining you.” Janey just smiled and nudged Liz in the direction of the hostel in response.
As they walked past the mango tree on the edge of the field, which was one of Liz’s favorite spots in Christ Mercy, she almost reached out to give the tree an affectionate pat as if to say hello to an old friend, but the two unfamiliar-looking boys having a discussion a few yards away under the tree stopped her. One of them, obviously a returning student as he was wearing black-n-blue, was speaking quite animatedly, and though she caught a good look at his face, she couldn't tell who he was. That was strange, because she liked to think she knew everyone in Christ Mercy. Okay, maybe not everyone, but allow a girl her delusions.
The other one was a new student, though he was obviously trying to hide his JJC status by wearing blue-and-black-colored mufti. That was also strange. Who chose to blend in when they had the opportunity to stand out? New students only had a few days to show off their closet before they were stuffed into the same colors as the rest of the school. And he had already wasted one of those days wearing a similar outfit to their Sunday black-n-blue.
Liz shook her head in secondhand disappointment. Though, she begrudgingly admitted, he filled out that blue polo shirt rather nicely. She didn't even know teenagers could have shoulders that broad. And he was tall, not in an overly lanky way, but in a way that brought the word testosterone to mind. And that was just his back view. If his front matched the back just a little, Christ Mercy girls were in for a treat. But let her not get ahead of herself, she would wait until she had seen the front view and had at least one conversation with him.
"Do you know the guy talking to the new student?" Liz asked Janey, when she saw her sister was just as distracted by the teen male specimens under the tree.
"At all. But he is a fine boy, oh." Janey said as she flirtatiously moved one of her thin braids behind her ear and straightened non-existent wrinkles on her pleated black skirt that accentuated a backside that Mummy, in her partiality, passed on to only Janey and Lola.
Liz gave her sister a sidelong glance that was heavy with meaning. "Oshey Lara Croft, target acquired."
Janey just smiled sweetly as if she didn't do this every year. As if she would not have that boy wrapped around her little finger before the end of the week. "I don't know what you're talking about, please. Move joor, let's go and eat your beggie beggie ice cream."
It was Liz's turn to laugh loudly and if you guessed that her laughter wasn't as rhythmic or effortlessly inviting as Janey's, you–dear reader–would be absolutely right.
According to everyone who had ever met her, Mary Chiamaka was a little uninteresting, and that was okay with her. Honestly, being interesting seemed exhausting. You always had to know what to say and when to say it. And it had to be funny, witty or somewhere in between. No, thank you, she'd rather read a book or watch a Korean series.
To be interesting, you had to be mentally and emotionally available all the time for other people's entertainment, and that just sounded like punishment to Mary. If she got up on the wrong side of the bed, she wanted to stay irritated in peace without anyone expecting her to smile or engage them in conversation. And, honestly, if that made her uninteresting, standoffish, proud, or whatever new adjective her classmates managed to come up with over the month-and-a-half holiday, then she’d gladly wear that badge on her chest.
Okay, it sounded a little too much like Mary was not glad to be back in Christ Mercy for the new school year, and that was not entirely true. She really was excited to see Belle after the long holiday and to begin her final year in Junior Secondary School. But, yes, she missed her room, her portable DVD player, her laptop full of recently downloaded movies, and guaranteed solitude. The many perks of being an only child.
Yes, Mary was an only child. A miracle child, if you asked Mama. The child Dr. and Mrs. Chiamaka had spent well over a decade praying, hoping, and waiting for. The thing is, once you knew this about Mary, many things about her started to make sense. How her parents granted her every wish as if to make up for her lack of siblings, and how that only made her feel her solitariness even more keenly. How socially awkward she could be sometimes, and though she was always top of her class, she never sounded as smart as she did in her head. How she craved solitude, but was drawn to personas like Belle who were people-magnets.
Calling Belle a people-magnet was the perfect metaphor, really. It was like Belle had a magnetic field that attracted everything with a pulse into her orbit. Belle was interesting, and Mary was content watching her from the sidelines, glad that the attention was on someone else instead of her.
"Doyin, how are you? Is Mary in this hostel?" came Belle's voice from the dormitory door as if Mary had conjured her up.
"Belle, yes, I'm here oh!"
"Sweet Mary, where is my ice-cream ?” Belle asked in a sing-song voice, to the tune of Prince Nico Mbarga's “Sweet Mother,” and Mary felt her lips widen into a huge grin.
Belle sauntered over, Janey next to her as she always was. They were not twins, but they might as well be. Where Belle was, Janey was usually less than five feet away. And they complemented each other perfectly. Where Janey was fair-skinned, sweet, and soft-spoken, Belle was a chocolate-covered firecracker.
Belle collapsed onto Mary's bottom bunk bed with a dramatic sigh, her large brown eyes bright with excitement and gossip, "Janey has already chosen our boyfriend for the year and we have not even been in school for up to two hours."
William Danladi was ten years old the first time Baba punished him. Before then, he had never seen his soft spoken, though stern-faced father get angry. He, on the other hand, a little too spoiled and a little too self-important had raised his left hand and splayed his fingers in a Waka gesture at Mallam Musa the gardener for getting fresh mud on his white sneakers on School Sneaker Day.
Baba never raised his voice. Not when Salome poured hot shayi on his lap because her eyes were glued to Toyin Tomato’s dramatics on Super Story instead of the stool in front of Baba. Not when one of the drivers came home with a nonsensical excuse to explain the bent fender on Baba’s white Range Rover. Not even when Maman was angry and her loud tones seemed to rattle the chandelier in the upstairs sitting room. So of course, Baba didn’t shout at him as they waited for the driver to bring the car. Instead, he said just loud enough for Mallam Musa to hear,
Wawa yaro! Albarkacin kaza kadangare ya sha rowan kasko.
Stupid boy, he understood. The proverb about the lizard drinking water from a chicken’s bowl went over his head, but what he was not expecting were the next words out of Baba’s mouth: Musa, William will join you to cut grass today.
William did not dare contradict Baba, not when he had that look on his face. And anyway, Baba did not change his mind. Not when the car came and Baba told the driver to take William’s school bag into the house. Not when Musa handed William a pair of shears and pointed rather vaguely in the general direction of some shrubs. Not when Maman came out of the house with a confused expression that quickly turned to horror when she saw William’s new sneakers sporting a color closer to brown. Baba just stood there, watching it all. As if he was not the Managing Director of a multinational conglomerate who had just told William to “move fast” because he had a busy morning. William never made it to school that day, but he learned two major life lessons. One, everyone was deserving of respect and two, never ever make Baba angry. Because Istifanus Danladi had a black belt in punishment.
So, as William stood under a mango tree watching Maman and the driver from the car hire service maneuver their way through the multipurpose field because this ridiculous school could not afford a parking lot, he wondered for the umpteenth time what he could have done to deserve this as a punishment.
Trust your Baba, William-kambi na. He won’t lead you astray.
Maman’s parting words. Yet William was convinced that if he looked up the word astray in any self-respecting encyclopedia, he'd find the corroded iron gates of Christ Mercy International High School Ibadan as pictorial representation. International and Ibadan in the same sentence? What a fine joke. A city whose most notable feature was the brown corrugated iron and thatch roofs that unashamedly decorated its skyline like chickenpox on a sick child. International, indeed. Maybe he was being a bit harsh, but who could blame him? After all, he was not here by choice. Who came to Ibadan by choice?
Ibadan is one of the oldest cities in Africa, mai gida. Mallam Musa, the former destroyer of white sneakers and now one of William's closest friends, must have said at least two hundred times since he learned William was leaving for the Southwest.
Maybe that was true, but it didn’t follow that he wanted to live there for the next two years. And that was what he told Mallam Musa the night before his flight to Ibadan when it was clear that no amount of sulkiness would change Baba’s mind. Baba was not known for changing his mind but William had hoped, all August, for a miracle. With that annoying calmness that all the adult men in his life seemed to possess in spades, Mallam Musa slapped his back and replied,
You might not like it, mai gida, but change suits you. Change is growth. Trust, you might even enjoy yourself.
William sighed as he watched yet another Honda Odyssey (was that the only car they had in the Southwest?) make its way onto the field. Returning students, easily identified in their blue and black Resumption Day uniform, peeled out of the van in excitement. He didn't understand it. What was so exciting? Yes, the school was bigger and the surroundings prettier than he expected, but it paled in comparison to the stately beauty and elegance of Peak District Secondary School. Everything he knew was there, and just like School Sneaker Day, Baba unceremoniously yanked it away in between bites of tuwo shinkafa at the dinner table only six weeks ago.
William, they mentioned a school to me in Ibadan that would be good for you to finish your schooling. Christ Mercy. It’s a nice school.
His first thought was since when did Baba listen to anyone but Maman, so he shot an accusing look at Maman who sat across the table that was always set for four even though it was just the three of them now. Maman seemed just as surprised as he was.
Sti, jira, Ibadan ko? Why are we sending him away?
Baba turned to Maman and they proceeded to have a silent conversation that seemed to satisfy Maman. But he was not satisfied. Not when Baba uncharacteristically tried to placate him with a Christmas trip to the French Alps. Not when Maman so transparently invited some youth corpers from Ibadan that were assigned to Baba's company for dinner under the guise of employee bonding. Not when Maman tried to guilt trip him by crying every time he expressed displeasure about the situation. Not even when he heard that Aishatu, the daughter of the Minister of Finance and his painfully-secret longtime crush, was also inexplicably transferring to a school in Lagos that was only 25 minutes away. And definitely not now, surrounded by new people in a new city that was everything he was not. Western, expressive and oh-so-loud.
Wayyo, William Danladi hated change. And Christ Mercy International High School was the worst kind of change. Unexpected and decidedly unwanted.
The inside of the car smelled like Vaseline and five different types of Avon deodorant. The heat of the early September sun, beating down on the car with a fiery vengeance, had managed to successfully evaporate the artificial fragrance of the deodorants, leaving behind a cacophony of odors that threatened to give Liz a headache.
She didn’t understand why Mummy insisted on Kathy and Lola coming along for every school drop off even though Mummy knew that she hated it. Especially when Mummy knew that she hated it.
It wasn’t like Kathy and Lola were not old enough to stay in the house by themselves. After all, they were old enough to have crushes, paint their lips with colored lip gloss, and use long hair attachments that snaked down their back and swished from side to side.
Mummy would have killed her, resurrected her, and killed her again, if she had attempted half the things that Kathy and Lola now got away with. Lola, the most boisterous of her eight-year-old sisters, already had a boyfriend, a fact that she boasted about to everyone who would listen.
Even Sister Janey doesn’t have a boyfriend, she would proclaim loudly after telling the “romantic” tale of how her nine-year-old amour had plucked a red hibiscus flower from one of the shrubs by the gate of their primary school and insisted that she become his girlfriend. The first time Liz had heard that story, she had just returned home for the painfully short two-week Easter holiday. As soon as she and Janey had set down their school boxes in the room they shared, Kathy and Lola had pounced on them, filling their ears with all that had happened while they were away.
Oh, did they know that Mummy Ini was now pregnant with her fourth child? She had promised Lola that she would name the baby after her if it was a girl. Uncle Olu from the boys' quarters was moving out next week because he finished building his new house in Alakia. Oh, and Aunty Blessing from Sunday School said that Kathy had a follow-follow spirit. Mummy was not very happy about that but she didn't say anything because Pastor was there. Oh, did they also know that Lola now had a boyfriend?
Liz and Janey had shared an alarmed look because surely the mother that almost disowned Liz over the Tito incident did not know her youngest child had a boyfriend. But Mummy knew. Oh, she knew.
You know how Lola is, she said with a dismissive wave. We will not hear word in this house if I tell her not to have a boyfriend. Besides, they are only eight years old. What do they know?
I was only seven! Liz wanted to scream in response, but she kept quiet, just as she did when Mummy said Kathy and Lola were coming with them to Christ Mercy. What else could she do?
It wasn’t just that Kathy and Lola were, for sure, going to embarrass them the second they arrived in school. It was that she and Janey were practically in each other’s laps for the whole fifty minute ride from their house in New Bodija to Tollgate, a route filled with more potholes than road tar.
The car ran into a rather large pothole just then, and Janey’s shoulder bumped into hers painfully. Janey flashed her a glance that was at once apologetic and frustrated, and Liz felt vindicated. If Janey, the patron saint of kindness, was also irritated by the presence of Kathy and Lola in the car, maybe she wasn’t doing too much.
Thankfully, that rather large pothole was a signal that they were only a few minutes away from the slightly faded yellow archway that welcomed visitors to Christ Mercy. Where your child is always welcome. Those few minutes could not pass fast enough.
Janey yawned, and Liz could smell the eba and egusi they had had for lunch on her breath...that was how close they were sitting. It didn’t help that Mummy absolutely refused to allow Daddy to increase the air conditioning past the second dial turn.
A fuel scarcity is coming, she predicted in her Mummy omniscience. Mummy Obalende’s sister’s brother-in-law works in NNPC and she told me on Sunday.
“You can at least try and hide your happiness that we are about to get to school,” Janey whispered with a knowing smile.
Liz scoffed playfully, “Why would I do that? Shouldn’t I be happy to go to school? You know, women weren’t allowed to go to school when Daddy was growing up. So, please oh, let me be happy.”
Janey merely shook her head and looked away.
“Sisi Lizzie,” Lola started, and Liz winced. She hated being called Lizzie, had hated it since the Tito incident, but that didn’t really matter to Lola, or anyone else in the Bello family, except Janey and sometimes, maybe, Daddy.
“I heard Deacon Omarosa telling Sister Comfort in church today that the son of one senator is coming to Christ Mercy this term. Did you know about that?”
Liz eyed Lola with impatience, “you are always hearing something, Lola. You, that you are supposed to be in the children's department...how did you hear what they were saying?”
Lola rolled her eyes and kissed her teeth loudly, “Is it not when they came to see Aunty Bolaji in children’s department that I heard it? If you don’t know, just say you don’t know.”
Lola irritated Liz’s soul because she knew, just knew, always knew, exactly what to say to get under Liz’s skin. It didn’t help that the car was hotter than the ogi Grandma liked to drink on a cold harmattan morning. “I know it’s not me that you’re talking to like that, you this tiny ting. I will ssslap you, you will urinate yourself.”
Janey laid a calming hand on Liz’s shoulder just as Lola wailed, “Mummy, Sisi Lizzie said she will slap me!”
“Lizzie, don’t slap your sister,” came Mummy’s disinterested voice from the front of the car.
Lola stuck her tongue out at her and Liz rolled her eyes and looked out the window, just as their car rolled under Christ Mercy International High School archway. The rusted red gates were ajar, as was typical on Resumption Day, and though the windows of the car were up, Liz was sure she could smell the clean scent of the red Ixora flower shrubs that lined the driveway. There had once been talk of landscaping those shrubs to spell out the school name and Liz had been wildly against it. Not because she particularly cared about gardening, but because she thought nature was at its most beautiful when it was allowed to do its thing.
Of course, Janey was right. She loved being in school. Christ Mercy was her personal kingdom. In Christ Mercy, she wasn’t just one of the Bello girls. She was just Liz, or Bell, a nickname Mary, her schooldaughter, was very proud of coming up with. Not that it was a particularly inspired nickname, but that was Mary. A lovable Mrs Obvious.
As Daddy steadily navigated their 2004 Honda Odyssey through the haphazardly packed cars on the vast multipurpose field, Liz could already see three of her classmates arguing with their parents about something. Liz knew that was about to be her in five minutes when Mummy decided that she knew the layout of the school better than Liz and Janey who lived there nine months of the year.
God, give me patience.
It was a perfunctory prayer, she knew. She had no desire or intention of being patient with Mummy, especially when she became Outside-Mummy. Outside-Mummy spoke full, unbroken, Queen’s English. Outside-Mummy had a patronizing “don’t mind her” at the tip of her tongue, ready to whip it out as soon as she detected a whiff of friction between Liz and any of the teachers assigned to check-in.
Elizabeth, you don’t have a bathing bar soap in your toiletries. You know that it is required.
Don’t mind her oh, my dear sister. I told her when we went to the market.
Mummy never “told” her. She “trusted” Liz and Janey to know what they needed for school, but Outside-Mummy had amnesia.
“Lizzie and Janey, do you have everything on your list?” Mummy called from the front just as Daddy pulled the car to a halt. “I don’t want your teachers to be looking at me like I’m a bad mother.”
“Sisi Lizzie, Mummy is talking to you,” Kathy supplied helpfully.
“Don’t mind her. Let her continue behaving as if there is cotton wool in her ears.”
Ah, the emergence of Outside-Mummy. Also, why wasn't there cotton wool in Janey’s ears, too?