Clinching a bunch of leaves, Rose walked through the dump, merely avoiding the crest, and descended onto the age-hollowed mat that served as Joseph’s bed, and then looking down at the mat, she asked, “Are you surprised?”
Then she giggled.
She had gone out wearing only one sandal on her left foot, but had found a rubber boot for the right on her way back, so she felt the mat would be surprised to see that. Settling herself on the mat, she stretched her legs and rested them on the landing of the rubbish heap. Dusting off some decaying leaf fragments, she laid the fresh bunch and reached for a handle-less knife behind her.
“I had a landlady, when I was at Enugu…,” she started the song of Joe Nez, as she chopped the leaves with the blunt blade.
The sun hadn’t grown so hot, as it was only a few minutes behind 10 o’clock that Monday morning. The rays that struck Rose from the torn roofing of the abandoned abattoir left her dirty skin with golden stripes.
She heard some noise outside, paused the song, and raised her face. It was Joseph coming back home. She could see the slate on his head and his oversized school uniform, but she was sure it wasn’t 1:00 pm yet. She looked at the engine-less watch on her wrist – a watch she had found in the dump and now wore every day.
“Joe,” she smiled. “Joseph the husband of Maria, it is not closing time yet, and you ate very well before leaving here this morning.”
She stood and walked towards her son. The mother and child hugged. Then Rose lifted her son and kissed his cheek passionately.
“Now give me a smile,” she said. Noticing he wasn’t complying, she pricked his rib and tickled out a loud laugh from the youngster.
“So what brought you back home this early?”
“The headmaster asked us to go home until we pay our fees,” the boy replied.
“School fees” she echoed. “Did you tell him we’re poor?”
The boy nodded his head sideways.
“Because we are not poor,” Rose continued. “In Enugu, my father owns a big house and a pijotu 404.”
She gave that foolish smile that made Joseph wonder if she was really the mad woman that people called her.
The little boy swallowed in exhaustion fearing his mother was probably going to start the story of her phantom Enugu that never ended.
“How much is the fee?” she asked.
“Just that?” she gave a loud laugh “50 kobo, 50 Kobo, 50 kobo…” She made a song of it and ambled about the rubbish heap searchingly.
His mother must be the mad woman people call her, the eight year old thought, how could she be dancing around a rubbish dump in the mist of something that seemed so important to their headmaster?
“Yes” she startled him with her shout. She picked up a piece of paper from one corner and started dusting off sands from it. “Yes, yes, banza…,” she started another song. She continued the song as she trimmed the sheet to an imperfect rectangle, then probed around again and picked up charcoal “How much did you say it is again?” she asked.
“50 kobo” he responded exasperatedly.
She laid the paper on the pavement and scratched ’50 kobo’ on it with a piece of charcoal.
“Get up,” she ordered. “Let’s go and settle that bill”
Must she joke with everything? He thought as he smiled at her foolery. “That’s just a piece of paper you’re holding, mama.”
“Papyrus,” she cut in. “That’s the Latin word for it.”
She started walking, beckoning the young boy to follow.
“Follow me you silly boy, don’t you want to go to school and be like your mother and grandfather? Do you want to be like Ajars that walks about this market looking for who to bear loads for?”
The little boy rose and walked behind his mother.
She led the way towards the school, fisting the paper firmly and mumbled prayers “Lord change this paper to 50 kobo, let me use it to buy a car for my son, pijotu 404.” She laughed out loud “ozo… Pijotu 404, ozokwa… Pijotu 404” she sang on until she saw the board at the school gate.
“St. Joseph’s School Mbutu” she read it out and immediately remembered she had not prayed hard enough for the money to change, she started speaking in tongues “abababa tatat zazazaza, brarararara” she blew air into the clinched paper. “Where is the headmaster’s office?” she asked.
Joseph pointed, his eyes were now wet in fear of the headmaster’s reaction.
Holding her son’s hand with the left, she kept her right hand firmly fisted as they walked into the building.
“Madam Rose,” the lady secretary exclaimed in fear when she saw her. She feigned a smile.
“Are you the headmaster?” Rose demanded “no, you’re not, you’re Miss, Miss koi-koi.”
Noticing what was going on, some children ran out of their classes and started gathering in front of the secretary’s office chanting “Rose, onye-ara” (Rose the mad woman).
With the help of another staff, the lady tried to stop the pupils, which then made the headmaster come out to see what the matter was.
“You are the headmaster, I bet?” Rose queried.
In fear and confusion, the new headmaster nodded “Yes”, immediately wondering what a mad woman was doing with his pupil and in his office. “Did he abuse you?” he asked pointing at Joseph.
“No” she replied in a creepy curt voice, while she rubbed his coarse hair. “My son, he said you sent him away.”
The headmaster swallowed in horror and uttered “But, we didn’t actually know he’s your son, we’ll…”
“Have it,” she ordered, stretching out her still clenched hand. The headmaster hesitated but finally stretched his hand out too.
“That’s 50 kobo.” She pressed the piece of paper into his palm. “Cover it like you’re going for offering in church.”
The headmaster obliged, immediately sank the paper into his pocket, and dusted the coal off his palm.
“Thank you madam,” he said.
Rose walked away, leaving the little boy behind.
Joseph looked up at the headmaster’s face tearfully. He knew he was in big trouble. The headmaster rubbed the young boy’s shoulder gently. “What’s your name boy?”
“Chukwu is your father’s name?”
“My mother says my father is God,” the young boy responded, now close to tears. “That’s what she told our madam to write in the register for me.”
“Take him back to his classroom,” the headmaster instructed his secretary. “And tell his teacher to see me at closing.”
He watched them leave, while still thinking about what had just happened. Then he reached for the paper in his pocket, unfolded it, smiled painfully, and tossed it into a rubbish bin.
That was just how Joseph got his ‘free education.’