By Okwuje Israel Chukwuemeka
“Merci! Not Messi,”Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba said, scowling, creases rumpling the bridge of her nose. It was ninth period, at one thirty. The afternoon sun was smouldering. Lunch was due in a couple of minutes, when the bell would go.
Jude had been paying attention to the lesson. With fawning seriousness he had enunciated novel French words with as much intensity as Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba: his “merci-s” being “merci-s”―with appropriate emphasis on the r-stress―and not “messi-s”, which other ostensibly nonchalant Damisa boy stuttered in pronunciation. And, while the eyelids of many drooped from boredom, his eyes stayed wide open, almost unblinking, or so it looked.
Yet, despite this concentration, it was certain he’d flunk French exams. During the first term, he had got an F, written with red ink on his report card. He had come last amongst Damisa boys. And, rather vividly, I remember how in the examination hall he kicked me by the heel, asking for the meaning of “Bonjour Monsieur” in English. I did not answer him. I couldn’t fathom why he wouldn’t know the answer to the easiest question asked. He continued kicking me, until the examination invigilator noticed and called him out. Then fifteen marks were to be deducted from his aggregate score. Fifteen marks from someone who did not know what “Bonjour Monsieur” loosely translates to in English.
So, having all this at the back of my mind, I found it suspicious that he was paying much attention in French class, when he obviously hated the subject and flunked it so religiously. And, to say the least, on a day Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba treated “ConversationTéléphonique.” Needless to add the seeming, genuine enthusiasm he evinced.
Ten minutes later, however, the lesson drifted from “Conversation Téléphonique” to “Quelle heure est’il?”―What says the time?—which had been the lesson of the previous week. Of which a vast majority of Damisa boys had been more enthusiastic to learn, and which Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba had taught better, and made more interesting for the class.
“Quelle heure est’il? Hope y’all have been reading your notes,” said Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba. The class came alive. Drooping eyelids opened and white eyeballs, with flecks of red, shone.
Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba brought out a dummy clock from her crocodile-skin bag, and pointed at Abayomi, the class monitor. “Comment tu t’appelle?” she asked, grinning.
“Je m’appelle Abayomi.”
“Bon! Good. Now tell the class five o’clock in French.”
“Bon!” she exclaimed, dramatically, with open gestures, gestures so open that her pointy breasts―nicknamed rocket boobs by Damisa boys―looked pointier than they really were.
Subsequent questions were asked of other Damisa boys, with her twirling the hour and minute hands of the dummy clock from time to time. Because “Quelle heure est’il?” was understood by many a Damisa boy, correct answers flowed in torrential amounts like a waterfall. No stuttering from any Damisa boy. At least none until Jude was asked to say “half past four” in French
Jude fumbled for an answer. “Il est…” he said, mimicking Chigozie, another Damisa boy, who had been asked “quarter past ten” and had begun his answer thus. Jude scratched his forehead and bit the head of his pen.
Prior to his being asked a question, Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba had been ecstatic that Damisa boys perfectly understood what she had taught the previous week. Her smiles had become wider than they had earlier been, during the “Conversation Téléphonique” session. Her porcelain-white dentition had dazzled Damisa boys, many of whom smiled sheepishly back at her. Her “Bon-s!” had been in the melodramatic range, her gestures more open with every ensuing “Bon!”exposing her pointy breasts.
Yet Jude failed to come up with a correct answer to the question he had been asked. Nor did he stand up, as many a Damisa boy did when called upon to answer questions. To that effect, Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba asked, “Did you hear the question I asked you at all?”
Jude nodded in the affirmative.
“And you’re sitting down? Come on, stand up this minute!”
Jude refused to stand up. He stared at Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba without uttering any word either in French or in English. Beads of sweat, which had momentarily formed on his forehead, ran down his face, some tumbling over each other. He slowly dabbed his face with the back of his hand.
Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba walked to the front of his table.“I said stand up,” she said, in a soft tone, her facial expression a thin line between a smile and a frown.
Jude was unresponsive however. Then he began to wipe away sweat that his skin pores produced.
“Do you want me to call a naval rating?”
“Then I said stand up.”
Jude hesitated after she said this, though he soon stood up; perhaps because being handed to a naval rating wasn’t something he had signed up for. Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba told him to go to the front of the class. He walked to the front of the class, dragging his feet. He stood by the blackboard.
“So you mean to tell me you don’t understand anything I taught your class last week?”
Jude nodded in the affirmative. “I don’t know that particular question,” he said, to be specific.
“Alright. You don’t understand that particular question. What do you understand?”
Jude scratched his temples, grinded his teeth, scrunched up his nose and said, “One o’clock ma.”
“You know one o’clock in French?”
“Ok. What’s one o’clock in French?”
“Bon! But you don’t seem sure of yourself. How about three o’clock?”
“Bon!” Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba exclaimed “Bon!”again, her gestures becoming more open, as Jude seemed to impress her. Never mind that the entire class knew the answers to the two questions she had asked him.
She asked him two more questions which he answered correctly and issued a plethora of “Bon-s!” and open gestures until, a few minutes later, I noticed something going on in Jude’s trousers―a bulge other than usual, a high rise. Other discerning Damisa boys erupted in laughter because of this. Jude, somewhat embarrassed, placed his right palm over his high rise, as more sweat beads streamed down his face. Then he turned to back the class, facing the blackboard.
The lesson ended. The bell went for lunch. Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba asked Jude to follow her―to her office about three blocks away. By then Jude’s high rise had been subdued. Damisa boys watched as Jude trailed Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba, following her lead towards the Language Laboratory.
A week later, Gbenga, a divisional leader at my hostel, sent me and four other JS 2 boys to fetch water, from the school gate, for a teacher. It was a Friday, at around five pm. Clutching our buckets, the four boys and I trudged to the gate from our division, Hotel division, in Aikhomu house.
When we arrived at the gate, I yawned. My joints hurt. I turned to face the commandant’s office. Then I saw Jude heading for the staff quarters, the same place I and the four boys were headed. I wondered why he was going there. I had thought his guardian lived outside the school premises. However I let the thought of him slip and watched my bucket get filled up.
My bucket began to over flow with water. And so did the buckets of the four other boys. We would stall at the gate, for some time, before heading to the teacher’s house.
Together we went to the teacher’s house, to where we had been sent, walking through grasses that made my legs itch. In a few minutes the bell would go for supper. So we moved briskly toward the staff quarters.
We halted at apartment 15, the house of Miss Mgbeorie, the teacher, whose subject of instruction in the school I was not sure of. Nomso, one of the four boys with me knocked the French doors of apartment 15. Nobody answered. He knocked it harder. Then we heard, “I’m coming.”
Miss Mgbeorie came out five minutes later wearing a bathrobe. She didn’t have any makeup on. Her face was the antithesis of what it looked like during school hours. There were dark patches by the sides of her eyes, by her temples. And I found myself wondering how many tubes of bleaching creams she had used on that face through her lifetime.
“Good navy boys,” she said dryly. “I suppose your prefect sent you.”
“There’s a drum close to the bathroom by the left-hand corner, over there. Pour in the buckets of water.”
One after the other, the four boys and I walked into her flat, gingerly. The floors, covered with rug, had no linoleum path to pre-empt an inevitable spill, which many houses with rug flooring had. The interior of Miss Mgbeorie’s apartment was excessively neat, so much so that one couldn’t spot a speck of dust anywhere. Her pieces of furniture were apt in style and matched the colour of the walls, the colour of drapes by the windows and the colour of the rug on the ground. The air within her living room was fragrant. I wished I could spend more time in there. But I had soon emptied my bucket of water into her drum and proceeded to the gate to get a second bucket of water, for one trip to the taps wasn’t enough to fill up her drum.
After pouring in our second buckets, I and the four other boys were told to carry on. Miss Mgbeorie told us a big “Thank you” and added that she would have offered us some food, but she hadn’t prepared anything. The entire group, I and the other four boys, disbanded after that. I spotted a ripe mango, three apartments away, which had fallen from one of the prolific trees that lined the front of the staff quarters. I quickly went after it before someone else would.
Then, as I crouched to pick up the mango, I heard a sound. It was both ephemeral and guttural. I ignored the sound, standing and looking up the mango tree to see if there was another ripe mango to pluck. Then I heard the sound again. It was coming from apartment 12. I thought it strange. I walked to the window. I peeped. The nets had collected dust, so the view was smudgy, but not so smudgy to obscure the physique of the naked woman therein.
I rubbed my eyes, surprised. I peeped again. What I could see was real. The pointy breasts of the naked woman I was seeing spoke for themselves. One would ever know whose breasts those were. What had been the fantasy of many a Damisa boy, in French class, was suddenly before my very eyes.
Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba, based on what my eyes perceived, was on top a man, hopping as though engaging in equestrian, gliding, ascending and descending, sweating profusely, intermittently making the fleeting sound I had earlier heard. The man she was atop, who looked shorter than she was, to my greatest astonishment, was Jude.
My jaw dropped on realising this. I was disgusted. I wanted to avert my gaze but wouldn’t, and perhaps couldn’t. My eyes were fixed on the two pointy mounds on Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba’s chest.
Soon, as I fed my eyes, my empty bucket slipped from my hands and landed on the concrete floor, on which I stood. Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba stopped hopping. “Who’s that? Who’s that?” she said, agitatedly, jumping to her feet.
I picked up my bucket and fled, only to later discover that I had inadvertently left the mango I had picked behind.
Exam period rolled by like a red carpet unfurling at a jet’s pace. French exams lurked around the corner. Damisa boys worried about how the exams would be, how difficult, given the fact that Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba had said a majority of her questions would comprise “Conversation Téléphonique.”
On the exam day, I sat in front of Jude, as I had done during the previous exam. By then the image of Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba on top of him had dimmed in my mind. And I hadn’t mentioned the incident to anyone. French classes had been the same; Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba did not to show Jude any special favours. Only that, I noticed, her gestures were not as open as they used to be, and no melodramatic “Bon-s!” which I’m sure many Damisa boys missed a great deal.
The exam invigilator, a senior secondary school teacher, entered into the class. “Class!” the class captain shouted. Every class member came to attention in salute. The exam invigilator reeled off rules and regulations. In fifteen minutes time, the exam began proper. The first questions Mademoiselle Jaiyeoba set were of a certain passage, “Pauvre Jonah,” about a trader at a local market who had lost all his goods, in the wake of a natural disaster. The next questions were on a telephone conversation between two lovers.
I read the passages, trying to make sense of the unintelligible words. I scaled through successfully. And then shot at questions on “Quelle heure est’il. Then it occurred to me that Jude had not kicked me on the heel. I turned to briefly look at him, to see if he was scribbling anything, or stumped. The exam invigilator caught me doing this and changed my seat, moving me to the front of the class.
Thirty minutes later, the bell went. Damisa boys submitted their exam scripts and proceeded out of JS 2 Damisa, wearing depressed look.
“That woman is a bastard,” I heard someone say. “Those were murderous questions. Did rocket boobs even teach those?”
“Seriously. But time would tell,” yet another said, grimly. “Let the results come out.”
I, myself, leaned on the reddish-brown wall of the Jubrila Ayinla Hall, beside the JS 2 block. And on that same wall would I be leaning two weeks later, when the results come out and I get a C. The results list would be pasted at the rear end of JS 2 Damisa. The countenances of many would change for the worse upon looking at the results list. There would be only one A. Jude would get the A.
While I recline on the wall of the Jubrila Ayinla Hall, someone would walk up to me and say, “I got an E. Can you imagine? Crap! This is so unfair. Jude who knows nothing got an A. How did that happen?”
I would smirk, for I would know how—or would I, for certain? But I’d know how, in a way. So I would say in reply, “Jude got a high rise” and saunter away, without explication.
Okwuje Israel is a Nigerian writer. His works have appeared in The Kalahari Review, Saraba Magazine and Litro. He currently writes from Lagos and is working on his first novel.