THE LITTLE ROOM WAS like the toy factory, flamboyant with vivid, rich colours. Except that it was smaller, like just a tiny spot in it. The little boy had on this midnight-blue T-shirt with bright yellow flowers on it over a pair of magnolia-white shorts. He was on his knees, his head bent over something he had in his hand which he appeared to be trying hard to fix. The object in his hand was obviously broken and he was trying to put it back together. He made mournful, tearful grunts as his small hands twisted over and over the object.
She walked towards him, her eyes fixated on his squatted tiny, helpless frame. As she got closer the grunting sounds became louder and more mournful and… heartbreaking. They quickened her footsteps to his side.
She bent over and reached out her hand slowly to touch his shoulder. He twisted his neck around and looked at her with a tear-stained, doleful face.
“It is broken and won’t come together again. Help me fix it please.”
She took the toy he passed to her. It looked like a rhino and its back limb was broken. She studied it. It would require glue or some other kind of adhesive to stick it back together.
She stretched out her hand. “Come, let’s go find something to help us reattach it.”
He lifted his small hand and placed it in hers, a dazzling smile brightening up his face. “Thank you… mummy.” He whispered.
Instantly her face lit up and she smiled down at him. They were just about to start walking when she felt the sharp tap on her shoulder. She tried to shrug it off but it came again and again, pulling her away from the little smiling boy.
“No! No, no, no.” Elizabeth mumbled repeatedly, her eyes fluttering as she tried to hold onto her perfect dream world.
“Eliza! Eliza, wake up!”
She jerked up as Tonye’s voice pierced through her subconscious mind.
“Wha… what?” She raised a hand to wipe her face. Her throat felt parched.
“You’ve been dreaming.” Tonye was looking at her, his concern and worry etched on his face. “Same dream?”
She managed to look at him and grimaced. “Yeah. Dream about children… or a child this time.”
She sighed and ran her hand through her slightly tousled hair. The dreams were becoming way too frequent. So frequent she even had them during the day now. Her eyes flew to her wall clock… jeez, she hadn’t even slept longer than an hour fifteen minutes.
“Err… was there something you wanted?” She flung aside her wrapper.
Tonye adjusted his body so she could slip her legs down the bed. “Your phone was ringing. You left it in the sitting room.”
“Oh.” She took the phone and checked the readout. “Two missed calls from an unknown number. Hmm, I wonder who it could be.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Heard it from my room. It started ringing a second time as I was bringing it to you.”
She nodded and turned away from his dark piercing eyes. He was worried about her but she didn’t need him worrying or trying to get her to talk about the dreams.
“Maybe I should call back the number, see who it is.” She said getting to her feet and walking towards her desk to pour herself a glass of water.
Tonye was nodding his agreement when the phone started ringing again.
“They are calling back.” She stared at the phone, sipping and laying down the glass.
“Well answer it.”
She whooshed out a long breath and shook her head to clear off any leftover disorientation. “Hello, good evening.” She said raising the phone to her left ear.
Her cool, calm voice coming through the line sent Caleb upright on his seat. Well, third time was certainly a charm. He was almost giving up when she hadn’t picked the first two times he’d called but something had nudged him into trying one more time.
“Good evening, Miss Elizabeth. This is Caleb Onofighe.”
“Oh… Mr. Onofighe, good evening sir.” She looked at Tonye and lifted her eyebrows in a quizzical manner. “I’m sorry for not picking your calls earlier, I was… err, indisposed.”
Caleb pushed back the black-framed stacking banquet chair and got to his feet, not quite sure why he felt suddenly nervous. “I should be the one apologising, Miss Elizabeth for intruding on your private time.”
“You are not intruding, sir.” She dropped into the wooden chair. “That is exactly why parents are given teachers’ numbers, so they could call them should there be any problem.”
“Uhm yes, of course.” He pushed his free hand into the pocket of his mousy-brown slacks. “Err… well, there is a little problem.”
She sat up. “With Rukky?”
“Yes, with Rukky.” He paced the tan, squarish-tiled floor. “About his school work… his class lessons and performance.”
She wasn’t completely surprised. Rukky’s class performance had been kind of poor in the last two days. She had wanted to speak to him about it today but an impromptu staff meeting had disrupted that plan.
“Yes, he appears to be having problems with some… well almost all his subjects now.” He was now at the door with his back against it. “His performance in his Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning class works yesterday and today were… well, very poor.”
“Yes, I noticed that, sir.” Elizabeth said quickly. “I can’t seem to understand why though. Rukky is a very bright boy and the class activities were…” she took a deep breath to stop her rambling. “We will go over the lessons again, sir. I expect he just had some difficulties understanding them, they were new topics.”
“Then you will be going over a whole lot of topics, Miss Elizabeth.” Caleb said dryly. “Apparently my son doesn’t seem to understand much of his lessons anymore.”
A guilty flush spread over her face. “Oh. I’m very sorry, sir.”
He was right to hold her responsible. She was the teacher and the boy until now had been the brightest boy in the whole of Basic one. Somehow she must be failing him.
“I’m very sorry about this, Mr. Onofighe.” She apologised again, laying her hand on her creased forehead. “Maybe he’s finding it difficult adjusting to my style of teaching.” But he’d been doing quite well until yesterday. “I’ll go over the topics he’s having problems with and see that he comes to understand and properly learn them.”
“No, no, no. I’m not blaming you, Miss Elizabeth. Not at all.” He straightened up and moved towards the bed. “There is no doubt in my mind that you are a very good teacher. After all, he has been doing just fine… even better, since the term began.” He sank into the bed. “I think maybe he’s been distracted lately… maybe too much play or too much cartoons.”
Elizabeth relaxed a little because he wasn’t blaming her. But still she felt responsible and that little twinge of disappointment of having failed a child under her tutelage gripped at her.
“I’m pretty sure he used to play and watch those cartoons before now, sir.” She said lightly. “I think I just may need to switch my teaching method.”
“Or he might be in need of extra lessons.” Caleb put in.
“Extra lessons? You want him to have extra lessons?”
“It looks like the best idea at the moment.” He tapped his fingers on the bed. “At least till he improves and gets back to where he was.”
“Oh, okay.” The sting of disappointment cut deeper. “Errm, a couple of our teachers do take home lessons, I can recommend someone for you if you like.” She offered.
“No, I don’t need any recommendations.”
Of course he doesn’t. She was the teacher who’d failed his very intelligent son, so how could he trust her judgement now.
“Miss Elizabeth, I actually called because I want to ask you if you can be his home teacher?”
“Excuse me?” She swung her astonished eyes to Tonye but he was busy playing with his own handset. He wanted her to be the teacher? Wasn’t this about her having failed as a teacher?
“Actually, Rukky requested that you be his home teacher too.”
“He did?” She was stunned.
He heard the astonishment in her voice and almost smiled. “Yes, he did. To quote him – ‘Miss Elizabeth is the best teacher ever’.” He gave a small laugh and then shook his head. “Ah… Miss Elizabeth, do you give private classes?”
“Errm… yes, I guess I do.” She was trying to get past the new astonishing development. “I mean I don’t usually, unless it’s important to the child’s learning development…”
“Well, this is certainly important.” Caleb cut in.
“Yes, very.” She nodded her agreement. “Okay, I take another child on Saturdays, ten a.m. to twelve noon. So, if it’s alright with you, how about twelve thirty p.m. to two p.m.? I can only spare an hour and half because I have other activities in the evenings.” She added quickly.
“Twelve thirty to two p.m. sounds splendid.” Caleb nodded heaving out a breath of relief. “So this Saturday, right?”
She inclined her head. “Yes, we can definitely begin this Saturday.”
“Good. So, this is when you hit me with your big price, Miss Elizabeth.”
She laughed softly. “Oh, it’s not that big, sir.” She told him her usual charge per hour.
“Ha, not going to break my account balance, thank God.”
She laughed again at his loud sigh of relief.
“Thank you, Miss Elizabeth. I truly appreciate this. And its Surulere – Awoyemi close – by the way.” Caleb pushed up from the bed again and walked towards the door.
“Thank you for your understanding, sir and see you Saturday.”
She waited for the line to go off before dropping her phone and blowing out a long breath of sheer relief.
“Rukky requires private classes? I thought he was like the brightest boy in your class.” Tonye asked, ending the game he’d been playing and looking up at her.
“Not just in my class but the best student in Basic One.” She turned to face him. “I just don’t get what suddenly went wrong. One day he was doing very well and the next, his performance dropped.” She shook her head in puzzlement. “Yesterday, I thought maybe he was feeling tired from his play at the playground. But today… I just don’t get it.”
“Maybe it’s just distraction. Kids get that way sometimes.” Tonye suggested with a shrug.
She frowned. “That’s what his father said too.” She pondered the possibility for a moment then shrugged. “Well, it doesn’t matter anymore. Come Saturday, I’ll be taking him in private lessons.” She gave him a wink. “So this is your opportunity to tease me about going over to the Onofighes’, mischief-maker.”
Tonye smiled mildly. “Oh, not to worry, I am gearing up for that.”
She chuckled and got to her feet. “Well, not to spoil your fun but there’s nothing there really. The gist on the grapevine is that Mr. Caleb Onofighe has absolutely no interest in women, not since his wife died. His only focuses on his children.” She moved towards the wardrobe considering changing what she wanted to wear tomorrow. “And as for me, you know very well that men and relationships are of no interest to me. They are pointless.”
Tonye stared at her as she ducked her head into the wardrobe. So the man had no interest in women and yet twice now he’d caught him looking at her like he couldn’t contain his interest? He shifted his gaze and it rested on the framed picture on her desk.
“Well, maybe it’s time to make a point.” He mused aloud.
“What?” Her voice was muffled as she ransacked her folded clothes for a particular print dress. “What did you say? I didn’t hear you.”
“Fried or boiled plantain for dinner, take a pick.” He substituted getting to his feet.
“You know mum prefers it boiled.” She pulled out the dress and studied it, yeah, it will do. “Go cook Chef Tonye, I’ve got some ironing to do before the Power people strike.”
“All correct, sir.” He pulled his shoulders in a military attention, moving towards the door.
“And it’s ma’am.” She corrected with a chuckle, pulling out the ironing board and swiftly setting it up.
Elizabeth stared at the notebook in front of her with disbelieving eyes. There were four sums and three of them had been red-marked a big x-sign by her just moments ago. Earlier he’d gotten two answers wrong out of the five Comprehension questions she’d set for them.
She just couldn’t get how he could have failed them or even these ones when almost everyone else was getting full scores. And she’d gone over the lessons again and again, just to make sure they all understood it. She’d even specifically asked if he did and he’d nodded and said he did.
What was going on?
She sighed and raised her head. “Rukky?” She called him.
Rukky raised his head from the book he hadn’t been reading. “Yes, Miss Elizabeth.”
She gestured for him to come forward. He approached her desk with a bent head.
“Yes, Miss Elizabeth.”
“Rukky, is there a problem you would like to speak to me about?” She asked gently.
He shook his head. “No, Miss Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth looked at him, then angled her head to skim her eyes through the class, making sure they were all concentrating on their Reading lesson. With all heads bent and eyes focused on their textbooks, she returned her gaze to Rukky.
“Rukky, you did not do well in the Comprehension lesson, did you not understand the passage?”
His head drooped. “I thought I did. But later the questions confused me.”
“They did?” She was watching him closely. “And these sums too, were they confusing?”
He linked his fingers and twisted them. “Yes, Miss Elizabeth.”
She sighed and bent her head to study his book again. “But you got the most difficult question right, how then could you not understand the simpler ones?”
Oops! He should have chosen another number to get wrong if he’d known that was the hardest.
“I don’t know, Miss Elizabeth.” He said in a small voice hanging his head in shame. “I don’t know why they confuse me.”
Elizabeth stared at him, feeling instantly sorry for him. “It’s okay, Rukky. We will work on them. On everything you don’t understand. You know, your daddy called me yesterday and asked if I could come give you extra lessons at home.”
He swung up his head. “Yes please, Miss Elizabeth, I need extra help.”
She smiled at his eager, entreating face. “I agree. Which is why I’ll be coming over to your house tomorrow at twelve thirty p.m., so be ready.”
“Thank you, Miss Elizabeth.” He smiled brightly. “I’ll be very ready.”
She chuckled. “Okay Rukky, you can return to your seat now.”
He nodded and turned to walk back to his seat. He slid into his chair and quickly bent his head over his textbook in an attempt to shield the brimming excitement buzzing through his entire body.
He’d done it.
Tomorrow she will come to their house and she will be coming every Saturday now. Soon daddy will start liking her and she will start liking daddy and soon they will get married and he and Stella will have a new mummy. A beautiful mummy with pretty eyes and angel voice.
But he supposed he has to continue getting some answers wrong in class for a while longer. It was okay. He didn’t like failing and not being the best. But daddy had said that they must learn to give up something they liked if they wanted to be the best in other more important things.
And a new mummy was more important than a few red marks in his notebooks, right?