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Mrs. Martha Smith was my best teacher, only because she taught me English, and English in my home was a revered language. The morning was chilled, the cold seeping through my thick Cardigan. All the pupils were wrapped around their little hands pressing their legs to their bodies. Mrs. Martha Smith gently, without a word closed the two windows and switched the bright yellow light. Another reason she was my best teacher, she treated us as she would to her children.
This cold Wednesday, she was teaching us how to reading comprehension, and I was enjoying the class.
“Reading is more than just voicing out the words like numbers, reading is an art, it’s like a tribute to words. One of the things that makes you a great reader is the ability to take note of punctuation sounds, and make it attractive to your listeners”. Mrs Martha Smith paused for a while.
Her shrill loud voice rang out clearly in the small but cosy classroom.
“Reading has made great minds. Ask any great and successful person you see, they got there through knowledge and one good way to acquire this is by reading, reading beyond academics, reading papers, novels, and the likes.
My alert mind was dutifully storing her words, making a mental note to have a talk about it with Abba. Sometimes, when Mrs. Martha Smith spoke, I could feel the voice of my father through her. Reading was something he never took for granted.
“Hannah!” Mrs Martha Smith called out loudly.
Hannah, a tall and fair girl who always sat at the first seat was dozing on her desk before she was startled by the sharp call. I could see the snickers and grins on the faces of my classmates, but none would be bold enough to laugh out loud. Mrs Martha Smith was very strict about her first rule; Do not laugh at your classmates.
“Yes, ma’am”. Hannah answered lazily, clearly she was still sleepy.
“The cold weather may be tempting, but you can stand for few minutes”. And with that, Mrs. Martha Smith wrapped up her class and gave way for the mathematics teacher. The same boredom I felt every time I saw him came upon me again.
Whatever I did, mathematics wasn’t just a friend.
My school was called Elites Academic School, and literally, only the children of the elites attended. It was situated a few kilometers away from the town. Although it wasn’t a military school, few soldiers guarded the school and security was top notch. This was basically because some big government officials had pupils in Elites Academy. Why my father chooses this school for me, I could never fathom.
The break was a good time for us because our classes and teachers were mostly strict, we got to socialize more during break time. A big dining hall attached to the huge blue kitchen served as our break spot where we’re served snacks for lunch. As we crowded around the table each taking his respective chair, I clutched the novel I was holding tightly in my hands, hoping it would escape the prying eyes of Mrs. Bulsworth, a British Chef, who had been cooking for us since I was in daycare.
According to Abba. “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens was my favorite novel in my seven-year-old life. Abba has exposed me to several books as I grew up. Oliver Twist was one I could never get enough of.
I was mildly surprised to see Hannah dozing off before her meal. Just how did she sleep, I wondered, as I looked at her keenly. A teacher, Mr. Khalil followed my eyes and saw Hannah. Quietly he walked to her and tapped her shoulders. Just like earlier, she jerked up and tried to focus on her environment.
“Hannah, what’s wrong? Are you okay?” Mr. Khalil asked, concern visible on his face.
Hannah nodded in response. Yes.
He obviously didn’t believe her, as he peered at her with his red eyes. Mr. Khalil was an albino, and because of that, the pupils adored him.
“Maybe we could get you to the sickbay”.
“No Mr. Khalil, I’m okay”. Hannah insisted, but beneath her confident voice, I could read the fear in her slight tremble. Mr. Khalil however did not, and so he moved his tall frame away from her.
Sitting close to Hannah had moved my focus from the book I was holding. I was tempted to inquire about her well being, but
I was reluctant. Hannah was someone I had never talked to. Somehow, our paths never seemed to cross. After deliberating for a while, I built up the courage.
“Hi, Hannah”. I was sure my voice wasn’t loud, but Hannah was startled. Why was she so afraid?
“Hi”. She answered and continued to nimble on her snack. As her hands picked pieces of the cake, I noticed how skinny she was. Was she that way when the term started? I couldn’t say.
“Why are you so sleepy?”
“Nothing really. I just didn’t have enough time to sleep last night”.
What was she talking about? Abba made us sleep by 8:30 pm every night, except on Saturdays where he made us watch “ReadASoul”, a reading program that featured Mr. Riley, his favorite TV presenter.
“Okay”. I mumbled quietly and continued to read my book till a loud automated bell rang prompting us to walk back to our classes.
Waiting for Abba was always prompt, even though we had a driver, Abba insisted on driving me back from school every day despite his busy schedules. It was one of those moments when we truly bonded, going through all that happened in our respective lives. His old red Peugeot drove into the huge school gates. After he was cleared by the soldiers, I ran to hug Abba.
“Someone looks excited today”. Abba’s rich voice resounded in the car as he drove out using one hand to tickle me.
I burst out with laughter trying to keep his hands away. This was the type of relationship I had with my father. A jovial and close one.
“I am excited Abba. Mrs. Martha Smith told us that almost all successful people are readers.”
“I guess that’s true”. Abba replied, his hands expertly maneuvering the steering of the red Peugeot. “You seem to like Mrs. Martha Smith very well. Why is she your favorite teacher?”
I thought for a while. “She’s so kind Abba”.
He chuckled giving me an amused look. “Teachers are meant to be kind Sameer, but I understand what you mean. Mrs Martha Smith is different, our paths have crossed once in England”.
“All my teachers are kind Abba, Mrs. Martha’s kindness is “tonouch”.
Abba burst out in laughter. “Top notch Sameer, top-notch”.
I muttered the word quietly in my head several times and reminded myself to add it to my dictionary. Abba encouraged me to start one since I was five. I now had 265 words and vocabulary that I perfectly knew their meaning.
“Sameer, what did I say about taking novels to school?”
My Oliver Twist was slightly peeking out of my school bag. It must have caught Abba’s eyes.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist”.
“Hmm”. Abba grunted, his eyes on the road, we’d just stopped at the popular street in Maiduguri capital, waiting for the traffic light to go green.
“You can resist everything Sameer, and is the word resist in your dictionary?”
“Yes, yes.” I beamed excitedly. “Resist is the 167 word in my dictionary. It means to withstand”.
Abba smiled quietly patting my head. “Good job Sameer, good job”.
The street was busy, people moving up and down, the noise was overwhelming and I silently prayed for the traffic hold up to dissipate.
I preferred a quiet and serene environment with very little noise. Abba was also getting impatient. I know he had to take me home and go back to work. I watched as Abba’s face squeezed in impatience. He was 62 and he had lines strewn over his face. His pointed fair nose was turning red. And yes, Abba was very fair, but I took after my mother. I was his first child. He’d been married to my mother for a long time without a child. Why he never took a second wife, I never knew.
But Abba was rewarded for his patience and had me in his old age and because of that his love for me was great. His love was even greater after my mother gave birth to Fatima, five years after me. Gradually but very slowly, the traffic jam moved up a little, Abba used the slight window of opportunity to veer to the right taking a shortcut to our house.
Immediately he dropped me, I waved him goodbye as I bounced happily into our house, our historic house. My home looked like a semi palace, a mini palace. It consisted of the traditional houses you would find in Maiduguri here and there only larger. The house was painted an old maroon color, that looked like a traditional dye. It was a sturdy old building with numerous rooms and abundant relatives.
“Sameer sannu da zuwa”. My mum’s melodious voice called out from inside her room.
I parted the curtain to see her playing with Fatima, trying unrelenting to apply mascara on her tiny beautiful face. Fatima sensed my presence and looked up. A smile parted her lips.
“Baby Fatima”. I picked her up and threw her in the hair like I’ve seen Abba do few times.
“Sameer, don’t throw my baby like that”. My mum quickly collected Fatima from my hands. I smiled and gingerly handed her back to my mum amidst her feeble struggle to stay with me.
“How was school?”
“It was fine Mama, you didn’t go to work together”. It was a statement enveloped in a question.
“Yes. I have a class tomorrow though”.
My mum was a lecturer at the Maiduguri polytechnic, where she’d been working for over 15 years.
“Go and have your lunch in the kitchen. It’s your favorite”.
I beamed in ecstasy as I went to the kitchen to devour the tuwon masara with vegetable soup even with my school uniform.
I’d always looked forward to Saturdays in my home. Despite my father’s strict regards for learning, Saturdays were a fun day.
Each Saturday, Abba would pick a fun activity for my family. From the beginning of the week, Abba informed us about his plans to take us for a picnic on Saturday. I was eagerly looking forward to it. Umma had begun to make organize some beautiful mats and picnic baskets. The househelp wasn’t left out as Abba gave them all a little cash to treat themselves out.
“Sameer, you’re definitely going to have a great time today”. One of the houses helps I was close to; Yahaya commented.
I smiled as I checked through my wardrobe to get what you wear, too excited to reply. Yahaya smiled and continued to dust through my room. Settling for jeans and a blue t-shirt, I combed my hair thoroughly; Abba highly disliked rough hair.
“You look great”. Yahaya commented again. I’d completely forgotten he was in the room.
Yahaya had been with us for over 15 years according to my mother. He was in his last year in secondary school, Abba had bought him jamb forms the previous week.
I went out to see Abba slightly furious. It was good to see that he’d picked plain grey jeans and a white polo shirt, a change from the usual Babban Riga he wore.
“Abba, what is it?”.
“Your mother has been getting ready for the past one hour, what can I say.?”
I chuckled lightly. Anytime we wanted to go out, they always had this argument. The mouth-watering dishes mother had prepared were safely packed in the little picnic baskets, but she was nowhere to be found. After waiting for 10 more minutes, mother appeared and instantly Abba’s smiled welled up.
“You’re lucky your looks justifies the time you wasted. You look beautiful”.
She was wearing tight black jeans with a beautiful blouse that reached her just close to her knee, matching black heels complimented her jeans, with a light blue veil strung across her neck. Indeed mum looked beautiful. Baby Fatima wore a blue gown. We all looked at Abba with an amusing look, our eyes teasing him.
“Okay”. He said throwing his hands in the hair. “I’m the only one not wearing blue. Can we go now?”
I and mother burst out laughing as we went into the red Peugeot, not without Abba stealing a kiss from mother.
A calm, and quiet breeze hit my face gently as my father drove smoothly to the outskirts of town, because of the insecurity issues. Just last week, a twin bomb detonated close to a shopping killing 6 innocent victims. Watching the news had terrified me badly. I kept thinking of the six people who had died. A life cut short. Dreams hindered. Abba who noticed how frightened I was sent me to sleep before it was 8:30 pm.
After a short drive, we arrived at a beautiful park close to the popular UNIMAID. Few students littered the environs, here and there. We unpacked the baskets from the car’s boot, while Abba stopped to exchange pleasantries with few students. He was a professor of biochemistry for over 10 years at the university, but right now he worked at a cancer research institute. Mother arranged the meals, wiping the plates as she dished the food. Dad quickly came down to help. The meals consisted of fried rice with fried chicken, others been mainly snacks. Abba reached out, picked a cake, and started munching it. I proceeded to sit down to devour my meal while Abba and mother were engaged in a deep loving conversation.
He was trying to steal kisses from his mother who was shy of the environment we were in. Father behaved very differently from a lot of men in our neighborhood. Perhaps it was because he had grown up in England, or the fact that his siblings were still there.
Looking around, I gasped as I caught sight of an unexpected figure. It was Hannah. The tall, fair, and sleepy girl from my class at Elites Academy. What was she doing? I questioned myself as I eagerly watched her. She was wearing a short gown that reached just below her knees, long hair packed neatly behind her head. I noticed she was with a dark and tall woman who didn’t look anything like her mother. Hannah looked tired. Her back was sunken, eyelids drooping. Was she still sleepy on a Saturday?
“Sameer, who are you looking at”?
Abba’s voice brought me out of my reveries, I turned to see him and mother looking intently at me. They turned to see Hannah.
“No one”. I turned to my meal, but this time I’d lost appetite. I couldn’t explain why, but seeing Hannah made me sad.
“Do you know that girl from somewhere?” Mother asked, coming to sit beside me. Abba was busy with baby Fatima.
“She’s my classmate”. I replied, my eyes downcast.
“Oh that’s good Sameer, well why don’t you go talk to her?”
I began to shake my head in negative even before she could finish. “We’re not friends with Hannah. She’s always quiet, keeps to herself, and never talks to anyone”.
Mum nodded, deep in thought. She glanced at Hannah once more. And suddenly I realized something. Hannah couldn’t be this woman’s daughter. I could just see it. The way Hannah stood few feet away from the woman. There was no love and affection when she talked to her. I immediately realized how grateful I should be to have my parents here for me. A few minutes later, they drove off forcing my attention back to my family. Abba was now on the ground rolling with baby Fatima. Her baby laughter’s and chuckle filled the air. A smile slowly built on my face. Just like Mrs. Martha Smith had said, the family was indeed irreplaceable.
The next day was like any other Sunday, calm and quiet. Surprisingly the sun was out early and then I was restless. I’d woke up and said my prayers but couldn’t go back to sleep. It was difficult to concentrate on my favourite novel “Oliver Twist”.
What was wrong with me?
I laid down quietly for a while, but I couldn’t ignore the emptiness in my heart, and emptiness that almost felt like sadness.
When my popliteal region twitched, a sudden dread grew in my heart. I’d felt those twitch only twice in my life. The first time was on a Wednesday afternoon at school, we were on our way for a debate in the school hall when the electrical wiring of the school suddenly sparked and caught fire. No one died, but half of the school was burnt, and to this day the cause of the fire was unknown. The second time was at night, it felt like it was a dream and someone was tickling me behind my knee. When I woke up in the morning, my mother was crying profusely, her sister Amira had died in the night. Little wonder why I was afraid of the twitching in my leg now.
We had such a good time yesterday, what could go wrong today? I could just put it behind in me and focus on the day. But a fear I could not explain gnawed at my heart. Two hours later, I was on the breakfast table, mother had put together kunun gyada with moimoi she had made early in the morning.
“Abba, where are you going to?”. I noticed Abba hurrying his meal, constantly checking the time; Father was a man of punctuality.
“There’s a research team coming into our facility today. It’s just a routine maintenance checkup, so I have to be there.”
“I was hoping we could spend this Sunday together in the house”. Mum chipped in, clearly, she wasn’t happy father had to go to work on a Sunday. Neither was I.
“I’m sorry babe,” Dad said winking, sending her one of those charming smiles. “You’ll be going to your mother’s later right? I could help you drop Fatima there on my way.”
“That would be good. Thanks”. Mum quickly handed Fatima to her father. I watched the exchange quietly, as unsettling thoughts ran through my mind, the twitch behind my knees going stronger. Abba hugged me tightly and looked me in the eye.
“Take care of yourself by Sameer”. With that, he held Fatima in his hands and walked out of the house.
“Finish your meal Sameer”. My mum put in.
Only if she’d know our lives would never be the same.
Hours later, mother received a phone call. Despite the numerous house helps we had, mum like to do a few things herself. She was sorting out our laundry when the strange phone call came in. I was in my room but I could hear her.
“Yes, that’s me. I’m his wife”.
“What’s he doing at the hospital? Is everything okay?”. This time, my mum was close to panicking.
“Oh my God, just tell me what’s wrong”.
Mum quickly grabbed her veil and came into my room.” Sameer your dad is at the hospital we have to go now”.
I was wearing a white kaftan, but I didn’t care to change. The twitch behind my knee had stopped. But I was afraid something bad had happened to Abba. If only I’d told him not to go this morning. If only I’d told him about my twitch and the bad premonition I felt. This was all my fault.
“Sameer, let’s go!” Mother shouted at me, something she rarely did. There were tears in her eyes. At that exact moment, the TV that had been showing a seasonal rerun suddenly switched to a blaring caption.
“16 people had been feared dead in a multiple bomb blast that happened five minutes ago, and the dreaded militant group Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the attacks.”
“Oh my God” mother started to scream. “Your dad passed there this morning. That area is on his way to work”.
Mother began to cry profusely. She searched blindly for her keys as she ran out of the room, drove recklessly out. I was left at home alone, the house helps gathered around wondering what had just happened.
Was Abba dead?
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