One Day All the People Like Me in this Country Will Be Happy
Ebelenna Tobenna Esomnofu
There’s a problem in my life. The year is 2017 and the month is June. I can’t remember the day, the colour of the sky, or the words in the resignation letter I handed to the Principal of this international private secondary school in Onitsha. I’m in a hurry to get to Nnewi where I’m needed urgently.
A young English and creative writing teacher arrives Nnewi carrying the sun and the stars in his bag. He’s in one of the east’s top primary schools. He’s a pretty girl: elegant, lithe, soft, gold-voiced. A few weeks after this announcement, he’ll be the MC at the school’s graduation ceremony because the owners think he’s creative. They think he’s brilliant. They think his English’s wow.
Boy, after the occasion, everybody says I’m smart. Everybody’s proud; my audience, my colleagues, my proprietor, my proprietress. My proprietress brings some very important parents to me. These women circle me like butterflies; they want me to give their children some of my suns and stars so that their English can rise and fall like music.
But there’s a problem, as I’ve told you. It’s Doctor Juliana. Her real name’s lyrical, it’s metaphorical. But let’s call her Doctor Juliana.
It begins one chilly morning at my school.
The sky’s a painter’s experimental artwork; one of the angels in heaven has spilled a bucket of seawater and it’s soaking up the clouds. I imagine myself travelling without wings to the sky to wash those stained pillows called clouds. One of my colleagues, a cheerful young woman in her mid-twenties, comes to pull me out of the sky, return me to this chaotic world of reality, and tell me Doctor Juliana needs me to teach her daughter English. Doctor Juliana is outside the school. Doctor Juliana wants me outside the school. Why? But curiosity is a joke: it means blinking and saying okay, okay over and over again. It means following your colleague to the gate, English words arranging themselves in a straight line like soldiers in your head. It means craning your neck as she points at Doctor Juliana’s cream-coloured car and walks back into the school, laughing and shaking like she swallowed a faulty Tiger generator. It means waiting for the English words in your head to be ready, so you can adjust your shirt and head to Doctor Juliana’s car and find her in the driver’s seat, alone and impatient, chewing gum, looking around, smoothing the steering. It means your eyes will blink when they meet hers and you will smile when she smiles. It means she will open the door and ask you to sit close to her and you’ll obey, even though you feel uncomfortable. It means you will look at her jeweled hand, at her uncovered thighs, at her excited legs that open and close, open and close, and not flee. It means you’ll want to look away, shift away, but cannot. This woman, she’s an oil painting: beautifully long-haired, gap-toothed, light-skinned. Beautifully plump with a wide, curvaceous hip that can make you wish you were a photographer or Leonardo da Vinci.
What exactly do you want? If it’s the kind of music I suspect, you’ll not see me on the dance floor. The body of a beautiful woman is magnetic, oh yes, but I won’t tell you why I’m not magneted.
Dr. Juliana says: Ooooooooh, my dear, very close to British accent, very close to my ear.
But why, Dr. Juliana? I wish you good morning but instead of returning the greeting, you’re asking me, in British accent, how I learnt to speak English like a white man.
I’ve been with British folks, I’ve been with Ghanaian folks, I’ve been to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka to study the English language.
You’re silent, then you’re rubbing your thigh, then you’re saying: Your accent is sooo sexy.
Outside, students and their parents are multicoloured ants; they’re going home. Some are just standing, chatting, laughing. Some are driving and barking. Some are shouting and honking and cursing. Some are quietly watching, unmoving. Dust curls above cars and motorbikes, above hairs and scarves, and above petty traders and their fruits and vegetables, like brown smoke, rising languidly to the half orange sun the starving sky will soon swallow like an overripe fruit. Doctor Juliana looks around this atmospheric environment through the rolled-up windows as though we’re hiding a human head in the car and flashes me a smile that has tiny splendid flowers blossoming in it. You’re an ajebutter, she says.
Ajebutter. I don’t speak Pidgin English, but I know the word means a fragile person who’s drawn to tender things, flashy things, Western things.
The silence in the car screams at me. The woman stares at me, her newly discovered ajebutter. She wants me to believe it, disbelieve it, say something, anything—but I can’t speak again: All my English words have conspired and gone on strike; they’re now jumping and shouting and running about with placards in my head, protesting that they’ve been overused and would no longer make my lips draw people’s attention the way sunflowers are drawn to the sun, unless I leave this car. But I cannot leave this car. What will I do to leave this car, oh Lord?
The silence continues to scream.
I’d been trying to get you, she says in a childishly excited voice, shutting the silence up. Finally, here we are!
She scans my face, scans my shirt. She moistens her lips, she rubs her thighs. Boy, what’s this? I’m bored, I’m tired, and I want to go.
But she’s begun to talk about her daughter, a girl named . . . named . . .
Call her Amara. She, or the husband, gave the girl an English name, but let’s call her Amara. An ajebutter, she says. An ajebutter who twists her lips elegantly. An ajebutter whose words, like water, run over her tongue elegantly. An ajebutter who walks and gestures elegantly. Like white people, like fine people, like me.
Her Solemn Promise: you’ll enjoy the girl’s company.
But I don’t think my face looks convinced. Maybe that’s why Doctor Juliana smiles and nods reassuringly, and I smile and nod reassuringly. Next: I take her address, I promise her I’ll polish her child’s English, I push the door open. Before I leave, she gives me a contagious smile and swears she’ll pay me better than all the other parents whose children I teach English, and the money will be bigger, way bigger, than my job. Before I leave, she asks me to visit her in the evening and keep Our Secret secret.
The car door closes.
= = =
There are many whip-carrying masquerades on the roads this evening; they’re collecting money from passersby and drivers and cyclists. Young men flog them and they flog young men. Women and children are running and screaming and laughing. I’m hiding as words riot in my head: Afia Olu festival, go, go, go! Can’t you end today for me?
Tah-tah-tah-tah-tah-tah. A bad motorcycle’s sound. Where’s it? Oh, see it over there, approaching for me. For me?
Siiiiiiiiiiiiii! my tongue calls.
It stops. I give the dark-skinned okada man the address and ask him to stop at the hotel in the woman’s street because she asked me to stop in her street.
His charge’s not unfriendly. Mount!
And, boy, it’s a safe journey.
I pay the cyclist, I phone the woman, I tell her I’m at the hotel’s gate.
Really? she says. I’m not in the hotel. We shouldn’t be talking in a hotel, but do you want that? It’d be sweeeeeet.
The music from her mouth pours into my ears and turns into a siren.
Okay, she says. Come to the hotel’s entrance. I’ll see you from our balcony. But can’t we stay in that hotel?
Come to the busy road and look up. I’m looking out for you.
Press fast-forward and I’m in their parlour. It’s big and grand with a dining table, but the couches are torn and some are tattered. Her sister, or her husband’s sister, lives with them but she’s not always home because she makes rich ice cream. Doctor Juliana has a maid, who cleans and sleeps and takes care of her son, who’s my namesake, and Amara, her daughter, whom I’m here to teach. Her husband, an accountant, lives in Port Harcourt while she’s a medical doctor at Nnamdi Azikiwe Teaching Hospital here in Nnewi. Her unruly son jumps from one couch to another and she shouts at the unseen maid to tame him. But it’s Amara who catches and wrestles the boy to the floor. His speech impairment is severe; he cannot pronounce words distinctly. He cannot articulate his name. He cannot write legibly. He learns from my female colleague, who teaches him twice a week.
I sip the Coke she has offered me and try to take my eyes off her indefatigably beckoning legs. From the corner of my eyes, I can see her eyes roving over my face, my arm, and my feet. Each time I turn to look at her, she averts her gaze. My heart is an oasis of relief when she finally gets down to business. Her handwriting is not very good, she says. Teach her that as well.
Sure, I will.
I have a whiteboard and markers. You need them?
I put one of the peanuts she’s offered me into my mouth and tell her I’d love to see them.
She calls the maid and asks her to fetch them. In less than a minute, the teenager is here; she props the board on the wall and sets the markers, black and red, on a stool, and walks back into the room.
Doctor Juliana introduces me to her daughter, pronouncing my Igbo name as if she weren’t Igbo. He’s your English teacher, Doctor Juliana says. He’ll teach you English. Greet him. Say good evening, sir.
I like this uncle, she says in a sleep-clogged voice. Mummy, I like this uncle.
Call your brother. And her mother turns to the jumping lad. Come and greet your namesake.
The little boy stops, then approaches us and mumbles incomprehensible words. I force a smile and Doctor Juliana asks him to greet me. He mumbles again and shuffles away.
Is he Brother Ekene? Amara asks their mother.
Doctor Juliana’s eyes roll, but she says nothing.
The girl turns to me and asks: Are you Brother Ekene?
I tell her my name and study her. The little girl is thick and dark and her tongue is a pink sock. She’s seven or eight. There’s an artificial flower in her hair. I like you, she tells me again, and I think: This lesson will go well. It will end well. I like you, too, my dear.
As you can see, she speaks like you, her mother says in a voice so uninterested in masking her glee. Or almost like you. I want her to improve. Not only her spoken English. As you can see, she’s almost there. Her written English and writing: that’s what I want you to set right.
Her spoken English is exceptional, I say with a plastic smile. I don’t think her English is near the threshold of the adjective, but I cannot afford to let my tongue bare my heart. My insincerity: it usually comes from a place of politeness, a place of pity. How are you, my dear? I ask the girl.
I’m fine, thank you, she says, in a slow robot’s voice and, although I do not look at her mother, I know her eyes are sparkling with pride.
I compliment Amara’s boldness and English, then turn to Doctor Juliana and catch her looking longingly at my small biceps. She looks away, then she lifts her head and she says: We cannot discuss the price now. My husband’s not in Nnewi, you know. He’s in Port Harcourt, but he’ll be here next week. When he comes, I’ll let you know so you can come over and we’ll settle on a price.
All right, madam. Thank you for the refreshment.
Welcome, handsome boy. Has anybody ever told you that you behave like a woman?
Okay. I trust girlish guys like you, but I want a woman. A female teacher. Preferably a mother, but none of them is as knowledgeable as you are. Male teachers and little girls . . . you know. Men usually . . . it’s strange.
I think she expects me to defend men, or condemn men, but I keep my mouth shut until she says: Men molest little girls.
And women molest little girls. Mothers molest little girls.
She blinks for many seconds before her tongue rediscovers its English: Yes, it can happen.
I tell her it happens, madam, and she comes closer to me and smiles. Lord, let her not unbutton my shirt, let her not suck my nipples. Lord—
But she doesn’t. She doesn’t stop burning me alive with her watery eyes, as if I were her favourite flower in a fenced garden with no detectable door. I leave wondering why she and her husband’s photograph have identical sad eyes like two broken twins.
A few days later, I’m in their parlour again. Her husband’s home. He’s big and tall and dark and his beard is white. But he’s probably in his mid-forties. His wife, for the first time since I’ve known her, is dressed in an unseductive gown. Their son and daughter are still unchanged; the boy’s jumping from one corner to another and the girl is chasing him around and people are shouting on the TV.
Doctor Juliana turns down the volume of the television with a remote control and introduces me to her husband. You’re from which state? he asks. His voice is deep but gentle. I don’t think he’s one of those men who shout at their wives, beat their wives, rape their wives. Maybe I’m biased because he looks at me with tenderness. I tell him I’m from Anambra State and he says he guessed from my name, but what about your hometown, Teacher?
I’m from Oba. It’s in Idemili South Local Government.
He sits up and says: Ah, Oba! I have many Oba friends in Port Harcourt. In fact, one of my colleagues is from Oba. We’re from Abia state.
We trio clear our throats so we can discuss
Nigeria’s education system
(which is a rotten branch of a decaying tree, we agree)
and then our fast-moving vehicle of conversation encounters a roadblock
and we find ourselves trapped in silence. Her husband manages to get the vehicle back onto the road with two questions:
You’re sure our daughter will improve?
How much will your English lesson cost us?
The tenants in my head, which you call English words, are jolted awake, and my mouth is unprepared for this intrusion because I don’t want to work with the couple. Because there’s a question mark in their eyes that makes me ache to drift away and never come back again. Because I’ve four clients whose eyes are free of punctuation marks, whose children I teach two times a week, whose individual payment is almost thirty thousand naira every month. Boy, I want to gun them an “I Don’t Want to Do Business with You” price, but I hear my mouth say: Thirty thousand naira, sir.
The man leans back. His wife turns to him with a “Darling, Please Let us Give Him a Chance!” look that puts honey into his voice. Lyrically, he begs me to accept fifteen thousand naira, but I say noooo lyrically.
In the end, there’s an agreement: two hours a day, two times a week, eight times a month: twenty-five thousand naira. It is not bad, it is not good, and it is time to leave.
Downstairs, the grey sky is wailing and its tears are washing roofs of buildings. Tea-coloured floods hum in gutters, carrying tins and waterproof and things unknown. Motorcyclists are nowhere to be found; they’ve disappeared, so that they, too, will not be carried away by the floods. I wish her husband were not home so she’d drive me to the motor park. I still come from Oba. My mother, a civil servant, lives in the college town of Nsugbe with my father, who’s retired from the college. But I will not be there, thank you. In Oba, if I like, I can walk to work in Nnewi while savouring a corn and ube. In Oba, I can drink all the beers and palm wine, and not hammer my mind with unpaid house rents. In Oba, I can play Brenda Fassie’s songs and dance naked in the parlour. In Oba, there’s nobody to disrupt my reading, nobody to disrupt my writing. In Oba, one is a bird not caged.
When I arrive in Oba, my Oba, it’s dark and cold and the rain is slowing to a drizzle.
= = =
There are red-hot charcoals in my chest this evening. I’m knocking and knocking and knocking at Doctor Juliana’s door, but there’s no response. I phone Doctor Juliana and tell her my problem. Press the doorbell, she says.
I’ve done that.
My house help is normally at the back. Go to the other door and knock.
All right, thanks.
Fast-forward and see me waiting impatiently in the parlour. Fast-forward again and Amara emerges with her small plastic chair. Press Replay and you’ll see when the maid set Amara’s desk close to me.
Now, I wish the little girl good evening and she wishes me the same.
We settle down.
I teach her the uppercase letters, the lowercase letters, and so on. She’s slow and uninterested in English. She’s interested in me. I like your beard, she says, touching it and giggling. Your small goat beard.
I was a goat, I say, removing her hand.
She laughs and laughs and my smartphone rings and puts an invisible hand over her happy, happy mouth. But, ah, it’s her mother. How’s it going? she asks.
She’s responding well.
I’ve lied, but do you think it’s as obvious as an ink stain in a baby’s milk? God, gifted men and women like me shouldn’t be doing this humbling teaching nonsense. One day, I pray, we’ll be happy in this country.
It’s almost 4, she says, her sudden Police Inspector Voice tearing the silence like a cloth. So don’t go yet. I want to see you before you go.
When Doctor Juliana returns, her daughter’s seriousness returns. My strictness returns. She greets me and thanks me and apologises for the delay. Then her eyes, two battery-free torches, shine light on the few words her daughter has written, and then she catwalks into her room, her high-heeled shoes making koi-koi-koi sounds on the floor. Fast-forward and the maid is here. Aunty say she’s bathing, she says. She say make you wait for her.
Amara and I watch cartoons on the TV until her mother reappears in a provocative gown, smelling deliciously of rich perfume. She gives Amara a bottle of milk and asks her to go in and sleep. The little girl obeys and it’s only Doctor Juliana and I in the living room. We don’t know what to talk about because there’s nothing to talk about.
Eventually, she says: Can I get you something to eat?
No, thanks, madam.
She tilts her head like a little princess and asks with a smile: Maybe your girlfriend cooked for you?
I keep my mouth shut, I watch her sink into adjectives, sink into pronouns, sink into verbs. I still remember these parts of speech, she says. My daughter should learn . . . A noun is a name of a person, animal, place or things. Isn’t it?
She looks at me with a frown. Then, after an awkward moment, she leans forward and smiles, her chest rising and falling, her legs opening and closing, the clock ticking and tocking.
I mumble my goodbye and leave. On the road, my phone rings, startling me. It’s her husband. I ignore the call and match on. At home, I find he has sent me a text:
How’s the lesson, Teacher? I’m still in Nnewi. Take your calls so I’ll tell you where I am and, together with a bottle of beer, we’ll watch Manchester United wallop this team this evening.
I marvel at his flawless grammar, and yet click Delete. On my foam, I try to imagine myself painting his wife, but her nubile features scandalise me, make me feel dirty. At church, far away in my mind, a bell is tolled, but does God really exist? At school, her colleague, an Nnewi medical doctor, together with her Yoruba friend, asks me if I’m teaching Juliana’s daughter.
To myself, I say: Why is it that they’ve never called her Doctor? To them, I say: Yes, I teach her daughter.
They exchange glances and try to suppress their grin. I leave them to answer an unknown call. I say hello in my best accent.
Wow! I’ve finally caught you, our great English teacher! The voice of Doctor Juliana’s husband is full of honey again. Why is he so determined to honeyspeak with me, drink with me? I tell him his daughter’s improving and he asks: Where are you?
What did I do, sir?
The call ends abruptly.
His mysteriousness doesn’t deter me from teaching Amara for two hours today.
Amara who says grammar is nonsense.
Amara who lowers her head to her desk and feigns sleep when I give her some exercises to do.
Amara who plays with her pencils when I open my Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America to drink the sunlight from a page.
Amara who kicks me like we’re mates and giggles. When I lift my head and find a piece of paper on the desk, she covers it with her palms and looks around the house like a thief. Then, slowly, she uncovers it and lets me have it.
I love you.
I crumple the paper and drop it under her desk and remind myself that I’ll be happy one day. Amara brings her head down to the desk, dreary piano sounds faint in the air. Not once, not twice, I try to lift her head. Not once, not twice, I beg her to continue the lesson. But when she raises her head and stands, she giggles and bends. She shakes her bottom and asks me if I like it. I frown, but she shakes her buttocks and shakes her buttocks and then settles down. After writing a few words, she looks up into my eyes and says I’m a good man like Uncle and I should not make her hate me like Uncle. Uncle? Who’s Uncle? Curiosity is flapping its wings in my throat, but I don’t want to unlock my wardrobe of questions: Her mother, I think, corners and interviews her after each class. Amara, without being asked, tells me who Uncle is: a boy who usually came when Daddy wasn’t around, a boy who taught her the keyboard, a boy Mummy liked. Amara likes him so much and does not know why he stopped coming.
Don’t be sad, I say.
She cleans her runny nose on her sleeve and says: Hug me. Let me hug you, Uncle.
No, no . . . stop!
Hug me, please!
It’s not right, my dear.
Are you married?
She stops and her head bows in sorrow. But I’ll not correct my lie. But she believes the fence, like all fences, can be scaled with determination; she lifts her head and checks my finger and finds a silver wedding ring and tries to remove it, but I raise my hand.
I like to be hugged, she says. Again she tries to embrace me, but I grasp her hands. I spend almost ten minutes urging her to return to her book. We do some exercises on nouns and she looks up and says: You don’t love me?
Anger fills my chest to the brim with boiled water. I want to get up and stomp out but my everyday prayer—One day, I’ll be happy— comes to me, consoling. I sit and watch her write something on another piece of paper and give it to me. i love you.
I rise again and then find my weightless self settling, settling, like a feather which is tossed into the air by a gentle wind. Landed, I open my Grammar Doctor Mouth to nurse and save the life of the bleeding personal pronoun she’s just beheaded, but my Lawyer Hand folds the paper into a tiny ball and drops it to the floor like a crushed bee. Can we talk about English? I ask.
My strict tone makes her bring her head to the desk. When she lifts her face, I find her eyes have transformed into a pair of sun-shaped mirrors blurred with tears, and her voice—So you don’t want me to be your friend? I no longer like you!—is a quivering guitar string.
I leave and send her mother a text, explaining her daughter’s weird behaviour and suggests she hire a female tutor. She doesn’t phone me. Dr. Juliana, are you caught up in duty at the hospital?
We meet the next time at her house and she’s not smiling. I’m not happy with you, but I’d been pretending, she says after the preliminaries. Hope you did not tell anybody anything about what my daughter did?
Not at all.
I’ve warned her. I beat her mercilessly. Haven’t you noticed that she’s changed?
She has stopped, madam.
The unconvincing lie, when it leaves my mouth, it floats in the air around us like unwashed underwear. One minute drips by, another drips by, and Doctor Juliana and I are alone in the parlour. She has slapped and hit her daughter all the way to the room and is back. Her hair’s combed and her face is all beads of water. She smells of rich soap, and I can see her eye-holding breasts through her transparent gown. What she did is nothing, she says. My daughter’s just like me. We’re bold and we can be mistaken . . . Don’t think that. Now, tell me about yourself. Not your girlfriend this time. The church you attend.
I’ve drunk Life beer to help me say “I Don’t Care What You Think” things. I tell her I don’t believe in God, madam. Sometimes I believe and sometimes I don’t. I always struggle to believe things I cannot see.
I expect her to be ridiculous as most Nigerians when one denounces God, but her eyes are not even rolling. I want us to be going to church together, she says after a moment. You know Dominion City Church?
Don’t worry. I’ll be your driver . . . Have you found an apartment? Where do you live now?
I tell her I’ve found accommodation in the tenement of her colleague’s husband on Ekenedilichukwu Road.
Oh, Dr. Juliana. How she bows her head as the sad news hits her, shatters her grip. How she nurtures silence and floats unhinged. How she scratches her hair, scratches her hair in her Unabashed Floating World. How she shifts on her seat and tries to land but is unable. Dr. Juliana. Poor, lonely Dr. Juliana continues to float, a broken bird who does not want her colleague to see us flocking together. Dr. Juliana-shaped shadow accompanies me to the exit door and the sunlight cleans it with an invisible duster. Dr. Juliana, resplendent in the sunlight, watches me wear my shoes and open the door, and as I say goodbye she says goodbye and watches me turn to leave this place I have resolved to someday write about but never visit again.
Maybe she watches me as she closes the door.
One week later, I phone her and ask her to pay me and she ends the call. I complain to her husband over the phone and he drives down to Nnewi. He asks me to come to (name withheld) hotel to take the money. Boy, fast-forward and I’m in his smoke-filled room. He’s drinking Red Rebel, he’s smoking a cigarette, he’s walking up and down. Don’t mind my sex-starved wife, he says, and his wineglass drops and shatters on the tiled floor. I shift my eyes to the money-filled envelope on the gold-striped stool, which he says is mine. But listen, he says, and places a trembling hand on my shoulder. I’m not a kid, I know my wife loves you, Teacher. Don’t hate her, please. Hate me for marrying a woman. I’ve not made love to her since January last year. Fifteen months now.
My mouth remains shut.
The day I saw you I wished I could kiss you, he says. Can I kiss you now, Teacher?
I step back, shaking my head. He turns, stumbles to the window, slides it open: doves, white and brown, hover over the green hill faraway. One day, all the people like me in this country will be happy, he says.
I take the enveloped money and leave, tears blurring my vision.
Ebelenna Tobenna Esomnofu is a Nigerian writer. He has published some short stories online. His debut novel has been completed. When he’s not writing or reading, he draws pictures or cries to soulful songs.
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