Most of the students were still in class when Uncle Henry arrived. That was how unexpected his visit was.
Miss Agbo did not even know that someone had entered the class. However, when we saw an unfamiliar grown-up in the class, we did what we had been taught to do. With one accord, we leapt to our feet and chorused:
“Good A-a-a-a-afternoon, sir.”
It was on hearing the thundering of twenty-two pairs of feet as they rose up, combined with the drag of desks being pushed out of the way, which preceded our greeting of Uncle Henry, that Miss Agbo looked up from the scripts she was marking and saw her visitor.
He gave her a warm smile, which she returned. Then, he waved at me, and walked straight to Miss Agbo’s desk. They exchanged typical pleasantries, but did not really start talking until most of the students had left. They clearly wanted some privacy.
Meanwhile, as students were packing their books into their bags and leaving, I went up to Uncle Henry, gave him a Hi-five, and asked him what he was doing in my class.
Without waiting for his response, I piled on another question to find out whether or not he had brought any gift for me.
He shook his head slowly, and replied in the negative. But, he stuck his hand into the single breast pocket of the cream-colored shirt he wore, and pulled out some loose change.
My eyes shone when I saw a green note, and I jumped for joy when Uncle Henry separated it from the other two red notes before handing it to me.
I took the ₦ 20 naira note from him with a squeal of joy, followed by “Thank you, Uncle Henry. God bless you.”
He laughed and asked me how my day was.
“Fine, Uncle. But why are you in my class? Did you come to pick me up?” I asked, carefully folding the ₦ 20 naira note into a tiny square, and stuffing it into the pocket of my navy blue shorts.
I didn’t have a breast pocket like Uncle Henry did, but I had already promised myself that when I got to be his age, I would populate my wardrobe with breast-pocketed shirts.
“So I can’t come and visit other people, ehn?” said Uncle Henry with a sly smile, turning slightly to look at Miss Agbo, who was following our sort-of-private conversation with thinly-veiled interest.
She was still marking our scripts, but judging from the questioning look she gave Uncle Henry, she was definitely paying attention to us too.
How did adults do that? How did they listen with one ear and still keep tabs on everything else?
It baffled me.
Even my mother had that unique ability, which led me to conclude, a long time before, that my mother had an extra pair of eyes behind her head.
I responded with a “No,” and shook my head vigorously in a playful manner.
“It’s only you I should visit, abi?”
“Yes, Uncle. Only me.”
“Come on, Ezekiel. Even after dashing you ₦ 20 naira, you want to ask me all these questions?”
“Yes, Uncle. Maybe you’ll give me more,” I said, pointing at the breast pocket, which I knew held more treasures.
Both Uncle Henry and Miss Agbo burst into laughter.
Turning to Miss Agbo, Uncle Henry asked:
“Is this what you teach these children? How to squeeze money from their poor uncles?”
“I wouldn’t say that, Uncle Henry,” said Miss Agbo, letting her voice linger on the word, “Uncle.” “I think Ezekiel just sabi better thing. Abi, is Uncle Henry a miser?”
“No, of course not,” he replied hurriedly, shoving an additional ₦ 10 naira note at me. “Oya, go and pack your books. I’m sure your mummy will soon be here,” he added.
I left, thanking Miss Agbo in my heart for multiplying my gift.
I did not understand then that Uncle Henry’s jara was to impress Miss Agbo, not out of concern for me.
However, before I left, I heard him tell her that he was in the neighborhood to see a client, and decided to stop by and say hello.
Before I finally hauled my school bag onto my shoulders, I overheard Uncle Henry offer to take my teacher to Mr. Biggs. She graciously accepted.
From that day onwards, Uncle Henry’s trips to my class became more frequent. It seemed like he was in my class at least three times a week for the next two weeks.
By this time, it was getting close to the end of the term. In fact, it was during the last week of November that I saw the picture that alerted me that there was more to his visits than I had imagined.
Miss Agbo, I may have failed to mention, was one of those hopeless romantics who fuel their desire for real-life romance by feasting on romance novels.
It was an open secret that at any given time, she had on hand, at least five of those cheap, paperback Mills & Boons or Silhouette romance novels in her drawer.
We also knew this drawer was off limits to us. In her spare time or generally when she was less busy, Miss Agbo devoured these books with much gusto.
There was one particular book we often saw in her hand. We concluded that she loved that book more than the others.
It was called “The Lady and Her Lover,” and the cover featured a heavily muscled, dark-haired, white man holding a doe-eyed, blonde-haired beauty in what, back then I thought was a “suffocating embrace.”
Miss Agbo had read, and re-read that book many times it seemed, because the cover was cracked and torn from the spine, but had been re-attached with celotape.
One afternoon, Uncle Henry did not show up as expected, and that threw Miss Agbo into a foul mood. By the time the closing bell rang, she all but shooed us out of the class to go home and, in her words, “stress out your parents for a change and leave me in peace.”
Unfortunately for her, there would be no peace for her that afternoon. At least, not yet.
My mother had an appointment that would keep her at least one hour longer than usual, and she had left specific instructions that I was to wait for her in my classroom, not outside, under the hot sun, until she came to pick me up.
I explained this to the frustrated Miss Agbo, who, as you can well imagine, did not take this news with any measure of joy. In spite of her reluctance however, she allowed me stay in the classroom as long as I promised to sit still and be quiet. I agreed.
I had planned to obey Miss Agbo completely, except that I was not the only child left in the classroom that day. Funto and Funso, those troublesome twins were also stuck in class until their father’s driver who was running late from an earlier errand, showed up.
Their father, had of course, informed Mrs. Aderinto of this new development via telephone, and she had in turn, informed Miss Agbo.
So, that afternoon, three children stayed behind in class.
Four times, Funto asked Miss Agbo for permission to go and play on the swings, but Miss Agbo refused. Her refusal was served with threats of serious Mr. Pepper-enforced-bodily harm, if Funto kept bothering her.
But since Miss Agbo did not cane Funto as she threatened the first time, the girl continued to whine and plead three more times.
Eventually, Miss Agbo decided she needed a breath of fresh air, and told us to stay put while she stepped outside for a few minutes.
Our teacher had barely left the classroom, when Funto who miraculously still had a ton of energy in spite of a trying day at school, jumped out of her seat, and went to the door.
After satisfying herself that the teacher was out of sight, she recruited her twin brother, Funso, to assist with her mission: to read Miss Agbo’s special book.
With Funso on “watchman duty,” Funto set out to work.
She marched to Miss Agbo’s desk, opened it with the confidence of a queen, and after rifling in the drawer for a bit, finally happened on the object of her desire: the prized copy of “The Lady and Her Lover,” owned by Miss Agbo.
I had kept quiet when I saw Funto put her brother on watchman duty, but when I saw her go to Miss Agbo’s desk, and start her search, I cried out:
“Funto, stop it! Stop it o, or I will tell teacher for you.”
The naughty child did not even look up from what she was doing, but shouted back:
“Will you keep quiet, Ezekiel?”
I shouted again, telling her to stop. This time, she did not even bother with a response, but instead, began to hum a tune. It was one of those nursery rhymes.
“The itsy-bitsy spider –”
She hummed that introductory line over and over again, almost driving me nuts.
While she was humming, she had pulled Miss Agbo’s chair up to the desk, sat on it, and after laying the book on the table, she opened it and started to flip through the pages. Occasionally, she would pause and read the words.
Then, she started talking to herself. I heard her say:
“So this is what they write in these love-love books? Ehn ehn … So this is what our teacher is reading … Ehn ehn …”
At some point, she called Funso, her brother, to join her. But, when he did not see any pictures in the book, he lost interest, and went back to his duty post, wondering aloud why anyone would read a book with only one picture in front.
All of this happened within the space of ten minutes, and Miss Agbo was still absent from the classroom.
It was then I decided that Funto had done enough reading.
“I’m going to report you to Auntie,” I threatened again. But this time, I had Mr. Pepper in my hand. I had retrieved the cane from the store at the back of the class where Miss Agbo kept it, while the little burglar, Funto was engrossed in the book.
On seeing Mr. Pepper, Funto suddenly realized that that could be her fate if she did not play her cards well.
“Okay, I will put the book back, if you put Mr. Pepper down,” she said, alighting from Miss Agbo’s chair.
“Don’t touch my sister, or else–” Funso the watchman began to shout, but his sister yelled back,
“Leave me alone jo! I can take care of myself.”
Her brother began to sulk, but remained where he was.
Then, the tables turned.
“If you put Mr. Pepper back now, I won’t tell Miss Agbo you took it from the store without her permission,” said Funto.
What?! Who was the guilty one here? Me or Funto?
“No!” I shouted, firmly planting my feet on the ground, and clenching my free fist at her. “You put the book back now!”
Something in my voice must have scared her and assured her that I was serious and could very well flog her in our teacher’s absence.
She took one step back in fright, and as she did, she stumbled and knocked the book off the table. As it clattered to the floor, two pictures fell out of the book.
One of the pictures was what I now realize was a 4 x 6 inch picture, while the other must have been like 3.5 x 5 inches or thereabout, as it was a bit smaller, but still bigger than a passport photograph, which is usually 2 x 2 inches.
I did not recognize the face of the man in the smaller picture, but as I picked up the photograph and turned it over, the words “Titus Obasi ’92” were scribbled in blue ink on the back.
The name “Titus” sounded familiar, but I did not immediately recall where I had heard that name.
As for the second, larger photograph, I did not need anyone to tell me who the man in that picture was: it was Uncle Henry, standing in a relaxed pose, hands in his pockets, grinning at the camera.
Funto, on seeing the book fall to the ground and the pictures flung out carelessly across the floor, had stood glued to the spot where she stood.
In my haste to pick up the fallen items, I had thrown Mr. Pepper in Funto’s direction.
By the time I had recovered all three items, there had been, what appeared to be a role reversal. Funto firmly held the cane in her hand, and I was the one who held Miss Agbo’s romance book along with the two pictures previously hidden away, in my hands.
Unfortunately, it was at this point that Miss Agbo chose to make her appearance.
Funso the watchman, had been distracted from his duties by all the commotion following the exchange of words between Funto and myself, and had taken his eyes off the door.
Miss Agbo had entered without any warning, and had decided that what her eyes were seeing could not possibly be true. She said this in so many words.
“Ehn, ehn, ehn! My eyes must be deceiving me! E-z-e-k-i-e-l! What are you doing with my book … and even my pictures? Ehn? And you too, Funto, what is my cane doing in your hand?”
“Auntie, it’s Ezekiel that did it! He took your book and was trying to steal your pictures!” shouted Funto, pointing at me as she spoke.
My blood was boiling with anger at Funto’s false accusation, but when I opened my mouth, the words that came out were,
“Auntie, I didn’t do it. Ask Funso.”
Miss Agbo turned to Funso who kept mum.
“If you don’t tell me what really happened here, na all of you I go wipe koboko! By the time I finish ehn, una no go fit siddon for one month!”
Clearly, Miss Agbo meant to use Mr. Pepper on our bottoms, and the thought of not being able to sit down for one month must have terrified Funso, because he spoke up.
“It was Funto, Auntie. Please don’t flog me.”
Funto had not bargained for her twin brother striving to save his own skin when push came to shove, but that is exactly what happened. She shot him a vicious glance that seemed to say, “You traitor!” but those words never came out of her mouth.
She had placed Mr. Pepper on the table and clasping her hands together as in prayer, she pleaded.
“Auntie, p-l-e-a-s-e, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. I just wanted to see what was inside that book. Please, Auntie, Please!”
As sincere as her apology was, it was ill-timed. She did not make her confession until she had denied her involvement five times. It was when Miss Agbo’s patience finally ran out that the teacher picked up the cane and waved it through the air in front of the girl’s eyes several times.
Only then, did the truth come tumbling out of Funto’s mouth.
“Ezekiel, are you ready?”
That was my mother’s voice. She entered the classroom just after Funto’s confession, and after greeting Miss Agbo, we left.
As we walked out of the classroom, I heard Miss Agbo telling Funto in a loud voice that her punishment would start that very day.
Then, several strokes of the cane landed on the naughty girl’s palms, evidenced by cries of:
“Yeee! My hand! Teacher, I’m sorry. My hand!”
I smiled. Vindication had come at last, and all was well with the world again.
On our way home, I asked my mother what it meant for a woman to keep a man’s picture.
“It depends,” she replied. “If it’s a relative like a father or brother or even cousin, it’s to keep them in mind or in your thoughts.”
“But it wasn’t her brother!” I blurted out.
“Who are you referring to, Ezekiel?” my mother asked in surprise.
“Miss Agbo, ma.”
“Whose picture did she have? Do you know?”
“There were two, Mummy. One man, and … and Uncle Henry.”
“One man? Uncle Henry?” my mother asked puzzled. “Why would your teacher have Henry’s picture? Unless …. Ah …. I see,” she said nodding as understanding flooded her mind.
“What does it mean, Mummy?”
“Hold on. Do you know the other man?”
“No. But the picture said ‘Titus’ ”
“Aha! I guessed as much.” Then, after a long pause, perhaps to decide how to break the news to me, she said:
“Look here, Ezekiel, Miss Agbo might be dating your Uncle Henry.”
“Dating? What does that mean?”
“It means they’re going out, and Uncle Henry might be Miss Agbo’s new boyfriend.”
I kept quiet. Too many questions on my mind.
Boyfriend? What could Uncle Henry see in my teacher to want to be her boyfriend? Wasn’t that what grow-ups did before they married? Was my father my mother’s boyfriend before they had Nnamdi and myself?
I would have pressed my mother with all these questions, except that she sensed they were coming, and told me she had a headache and needed peace and quiet till we got home.
By the time we got home, I had forgotten the questions I wanted to ask.
But other things began to occupy my thoughts.
One of them was the end-of-year Christmas party, which was coming in December. I was looking forward especially to this party because of one person: Father Christmas.
I knew he was not real, and even knew that in our school, Mr. Adelaja was the resident Father Christmas.
Both Bright and I had seen him change into his costume the previous year in the Fine Arts room, so that took care of any fantasies of the chubby old man.
But his presents were real, and I looked forward to my own presents that year.
However, what I did not know, and could never have anticipated was that I would catch Father Christmas doing something totally unbelievable.
… to be continued …
Picture Source: Pinterest