IT WAS long past midday when she re-entered Madame Ude’s bedroom. She found her half sitting up, propped up on pillows, her dark face pale and drawn. In her hands was a book. Somayinozo sat on a chair by the bedside and for long seconds the two females communed eyeball to eyeball in absolute silence.
Then, overcome by curiosity, Somayinozo reached for the light green book in madame’s hands, and looked at the title: A Pageant of Longer Poems. It was worn, but stiff, as if it had once been frequently read, long ago.
“Do you like poems?” Madame Ude asked her.
“Then flip through. Find one you fancy and read it out.”
Somayinozo took a long time in searching through the book. Madame Ude patiently waited, saying nothing, just watching her curiously. Finally the kid raised her braided head..
“This one seems… er… interesting.”
Madame Ude smiled and kept waiting. Somayinozo looked up at her for a moment, saw the reassuring look in her eyes, smiled a little half-smile and then started reading:
“ – – – – ‘The Child is father of the man
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.’
There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream…”
Madame Ude listened, a slight look of introspective, backward looking, wonder on her face. He eyes were shut, her breathing slowed down, moved she listened to the quietness in Somayinozo’s voice as she read one of her favorite poems back to her. It was not the voice of a fourteen year old or diction of someone from a village primary school. These thoughts floated somewhere at the back of her mind as Somayinozo neared the end of the poem. It was a long poem, but swift had been its transport through time, it seemed to her, as the girl had made her way through it, slowly, until she got to the end.
“… Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
Madame Ude opened her eyes and, through her film of tears, saw the tears in Somayinozo’s eyes.
“This last verse is so touching,” the young teenager whispered. “It makes me want to cry.”
“You are already crying, dear…”
And now Somayinozo burst out weeping.
“Do you understand every part of the poem?”
Somayinozo shook her head. “There were some unfamiliar words, but … I understand the poem itself.”
“Hm…” heavied Madame Ude softly. A thoughtful and worried look came over her face as she studied Somayinozo who had again looked down and was perusing Wordsworth’s immortality ode again.
“How old are you, Somayinozo?”
“Fourteen years old, Ma.”
“Where were you born and raised?”
“Far away. In Lagos.”
“What school did you go to?”
“The primary school I attended is called the University of Lagos Staff School. And then I entered I– “
Madame Ude was startled. Before Somayinozo could continue, she broke in:
“That’s a very good school.”
Somayinozo’s gaze slipped into the past. Suddenly the tears started to flow down her cheeks again, streaming, and she began to sob.
Madame Ude was alarmed.
“I’m sorry, dear. Did I say something? I’m sorry.”
Somayinozo struggled to pull herself together. Slowly she succeeded.
“I’m sorry, dear. Did I say something?” repeated Madame Ude.
Somayinozo looked into Madame Ude’s kind eyes for some time, then shook her head.
“No, Ma. It’s the poem.”
“Are you sure?”
Somayinozo averted her eyes and nodded.
“I’m sure you’d like to rest now, Ma, “ she said. “I shouldn’t be agitating you this much. You’re ill. I’ll go now.”
Madame Ude was too absorbed in the moment to feel tired. She stretched out her hands and took Somayinozo’s in hers.
“Come, my child, call me mother, let’s be friends, give me your heart, tell me what’s in you, in your life, in your past. Tell me the substance of your sorrow, let us share it.”
“Oh, madame, you remind me of my mother!” Again she burst into tears and hid her face in the folds of Madame Ude’s quilts.
“Oh, my.” The madame, astonished beyond words by this confession, placed her palm on Somayinozo’s braided head. “My dear child.”
She waited for the weeping to subside, then gently asked:
“And where is your mother, dear?”
Somayinozo became silent and looked into Madame Ude’s eyes.
Madame Ude nodded and decided to stop asking for now. She felt tiredness begin to creep up on her. The pains were coming back.
She put the book back into Somayinozo’s hand.
“Take it and read it at your leisure, but bring it along tomorrow, so you can read some more to me.”
The tall dark thin teenager stood up, pierced Madame Ude’s eyes for some moments with a searching gaze, then wordlessly left.
Madame Ude slowly swallowed her pills and then gazed at the closed door through which Somayinozo had left. Could a fourteen year old girl whose education had stopped after primary, or at best early in secondary, school really understand such a poem?”
Madame Ude felt strong bonds of love slowly begin to form between her and the young maiden, and a warmth flowed in her heart. She decided to find out more about this girl who her housekeeper Ngozi had brought in here as spare cleaner, maid and housegirl several months earlier. She would have to remember to ask her about Somayinozo some time, she thought groggily to herself, as her eyes closed and she fell asleep.
… to be continued.
– CHE CHIDI CHUKWUMERIJE.