The crispy august wind smacked Matthew Udoh. He could barely see through the fog let alone find the aluminum bucket. He hated the harmattan season because his skin would shrivel like the smoked mackerel his mother bought for dinner and itch for hours. Should he open his mouth his already chapped lips will tear – the last one took two weeks to heal. He trembled at the thought of pouring cold water over his body. The sun wasn’t out, the escaping moon still casted its reflection in his bucket reminding him of the icy cold water. He shuddered. Lifting a bowl full of water he held his breath and threw the water over him. The water landed on the ground with a light thud, splinters of it touching his feet – he shifted before the water came down. His mother’s voice rekindled the courage he needed.
I really need oil on my skin. He winced and touched his cheeks as the memory came back – chirping around his head where the same birds that circled around ‘tom’s head in the Tom and Jerry cartoon they watched at Ette Okon’s house -after Eka Udeme’s mean and brutal hands gave him the beating of his life for using part of her groundnut oil. He never understood how such a frail looking woman could lash out such huge pain. I’ll never take what doesn’t belong to me again. He smiled. Tom and Jerry! Ette Okon would never have discovered how rats started getting into his house. If Livinus, that stupid boy had not gone bragging to his sisters.
His skin had started to itch and he couldn’t get his hands through his cloths because they were snug.
“Matty.” his mother shouted from the back of the house, he could tell she was coming out of the bathroom from the sound of the zinc door.
“Have you eaten your food?” she asked in Ibibio.
She always brought a smile on his face probably because she was the only family he had or because she was easy to talk to. He was once told that his mum was the belle of the village, she stood tall among her peers – still did, with hair black and glossy that the superstitious thought she was a ‘mammy water’. She was slender and her dark skin glowed, her eyes shaped like cat’s eyes stamped with hazel-coloured pupils. She had a small pointed nose and her lips were small, all neatly tucked in an oval shaped face. Nobody understood what she saw in his father – one minute he was in a good mood and then another he is in a bad mood; no one knew about bipolar then. Matthew was told he took his mother’s looks though he didn’t see how.
His skin started itching again. He rushed to where his food was and his eyes lighted. It was garri and palm kernel, his jaws hurt as he chewed but he didn’t care it was like eating rice and chicken on Christmas day. He hurriedly ate his food as he didn’t want his friends to see him soaking garri nevertheless he couldn’t help waiting for the garri to swell. Matty watched her son eat with relish and smiled, thank you Jesus! For weeks they’ve been eating cooked unripe pawpaw. She knew he ate it to please her, he didn’t beg which often surprised her. She turned towards the door she was leaning on to hide her tears and pray: Please God, look not on my sins but on the faith I have you and take my son away from this misery, please I don’t want him to grow up in poverty.
“Mummy, I have finished eating.”
She wiped her eyes, smiling she said, “I have a surprise for you” then she pulled one end of her wrapper, loosening the tip she brought out money and gave him. The opened the door withdraw something in a black cellophane bag. It was for his school fees and a pair of slippers. The money was from the sale of palm kernel: it wasn’t enough money to cover a sandal. Matthew jumped up and down, and then wiggled his waist and jumped on his mum who started laughing. He was glad to be paying his fees on the first day of school – something that has never happened before. The earliest was the day before their mid-term break and that was three years ago.
His friends, Livinus Orhiunu and Ambrose Livingstone arrived just as he was putting the money in his pocket. Livinus was talkative and chubby in an intimidating way even the senior prefects feared to flog him when they were late. His father even suspected him of stealing food at night: he was. His father never caught him because he did it in the afternoon. Ambrose on the other hand was lanky, reserved and taller than most people his age with four brothers of which – three were now late – and seven sisters. His mother and Matthew’s mother got along but weren’t friends – that was expected as his mother is old enough to be her mother.
Mr. Kalabor, the duty Master was at the entrance of the school with his cane, his cane was different, it was called koboko, and he brought it with him from the north. Both staff and students feared the cane but they could do nothing because Mr. Kalabor was related to the Headmaster, so the teachers protected their own children and played the ‘mind-your-business’ game.
“Why are you always late, I let you pass yesterday but that is not happening today.” Mr. Kalabor shook his head vigorously then said, “Kneel down!”
Matthew was already shaking like a leaf that was under a heavy rain. He gave everyone six strokes of his cane but when it got to Matthew’s turn he frowned maybe he was afraid the boy would die. He quickly thought of a way to protect his reputation.
“You, come with me!” Mr. Kalabor hissed.
Matthew followed. When they got to the staffroom his frown was replaced with concern.
“Sit down. Are you alright?” he asked quietly.
Matthew’s reply was inaudible. His eyes glazed, his mouth watered as the different aromas of displayed food hit him. A staff on maternity leave had sent food from the celebration of the safe delivery of her first son. Mr. Kalabor noticed how the little boy’s eyes danced from one dish to another, offered to get him some food. Matthew refused.
“I won’t tell if you won’t.” Mr. Kalabor whispered.
Before Mr. Kalabor could say ‘A’ Matthew was slurping and gulping away with such speed that the star-nosed mole would envy and a grass cutter would relish. He had just finished eating and was wiping his mouth with the back of his hand when a light-skinned girl was pulled by the ear into the room. Her skin shone like Ette Okon’s Sunday shoes after it had been waxed with the Kiwi shoe polish he claimed was a souvenir. She was so thin it looked like a feather could knock her out, her nose was as pointed as the cones they were told to make in class last term and her hair was brown and curly. Matthew stared at her. He only realized his mouth had been open when he accidentally swallowed something: saliva, a fly?
She giggled covering her mouth to muffle the sound. He remembered he had seen her with Mfon when he went with his mother to sell palm kernel. She must be the new girl that Livinus’ sisters were talking about yesterday; he could almost swear they were jealous.
The Labour Master came in, saw Matthew and grunted, “Don’t you have a class you should be in?”
Before the teacher could say another word Matthew ran as fast as his wobbling legs could carry him. He couldn’t understand why his legs were wobbly.
From where she was standing she could see him run to his class. It was her class too then twisted her mouth dispassionately as she tried to clean her teeth with her tongue, very white teeth for a village boy!