Fourth Window

Minutes after, Jane would wish she had never picked the call. It was a warm night, and a light sheen of sweat glazed her scantily-clad body. She turned and with every motion, pushed off another item of clothing. She had just kicked off her shorts when she felt the vibration under her ribs. Jerking upright, she squinted into the darkness before picking the offending item and barking into the phone.

“Yes?!”

There was a responding silence. Pulling the phone away from her ear, she glared at the tiny screen, trying to make out a familiar name or number. She got none. ‘Unknown Number’ usually meant pranks or wrong numbers to her. She put it back to her ear, one last effort before trying to latch on to the retreating spirits of sleep.

“Yes? Who is it?!” Her voice cracked and she heard the soft whoosh of her silk shorts hitting the floor.

“Miss Jane?”

Her drooping eyes snapped open and the arch of her back straightened out. One. Only her students or their parents called her Miss Jane; so this had to be school-related. Two. It was an older teenager’s voice, so it was probably one of her Last year students. Three. It was male, so it could still be a prank.

“Yes?” Her voice asked, now hesitantly.

“Miss Jane. Good eve.. morning.” She reached over to search for her discarded shorts to cover her exposed thighs. As if the boy could somehow see through the miles and darkness at his teacher looking so… inappropriate.

“Who’s this? How can I help you?” She climbed off her bed and walked blindly till she found a match box. Holding the phone between her ear and shoulder, she lit a candle. Her brain flitted around as she went through the motions, wondering how a student got her number and why he was calling.

“I’m one of your students and I’m about to jump out a window and I wanted you to be the last person I spoke to.”

Jane jumped back as wax dropped to her leg from the candle she had let go off.

“What? Is this some kind of joke? Who is this?” Her voice went squeaky as her agitation rose. “Who is this?!”

“Miss Jane, I’ll tell you my name but I’m sure you don’t know me. I sit beside the fourth window in class… Beside the corridor. The only subject I didn’t pass last term was..”

“Who is this?”

“..Biology and it’s because I really don’t like Mr. Saratu. I got a D in Further Maths but God knows I’ve tried..”

“Who is this?!”

“My name is Ugo.”

Jane fell silent as her eyes clamped shut. She brought up the classroom image in her head, browsing through the rows of seats. Trying hard to remember the many faces of her pupils. Ugo. Ugo. Who was Ugo? She remembered Daniel, the class captain; Fola the one who stared at her lewdly; Amechi who had the seizures.. But no Ugo. Damn it! Her class was huge and unruly and she worked so much and got paid so little, she just couldn’t remember!

“I told you you wouldn’t know me..”

Jane turned around to lean against the wall, the silk of her top allowing her to slide smoothly till she was squatting. “Ugo; there are eighty six of you in that class; you don’t expect me to remember every single one of you. Where are your parents?”

The boy laughed and Jane shuddered, the flecks of his mire tickling her ear and running down her spine. “I told you you wouldn’t know me, you’re the one who insisted. But you are our class teacher, you should know.”

“Where are your parents? Why do you want to jump?”

“Well, my parents are sleeping. My brothers are sleeping too. Don’t worry, they won’t miss me. I’m just one of five boys, and an insignificant third born.”

Jane was now sure she was dealing with a crazy person, she turned her speakerphone on and began to scroll through her contacts, her fingers shook as her eyes searched in a frenzy for someone, anyone who could help. Ah! Maybe Seun, he was an IT guy. He could help, somehow.

“Miss Jane, I can hear you hitting your keypad; if you call someone, I’ll simply cut and jump. I just want to have a conversation before I do.”

Jane froze; tears of frustration pooled in her eyes. Questions lanced through her head at such rates enough to make her spin. Why her? Was it a prank? No.. He did sound crazy. Who was he? How come she didn’t remember him? What if he was lying about being her student?

“What’s your best colour?” Time. She needed time. And most of the heroines in the novels she struggled to read during lunch breaks used diversionary tactics like this. They always worked.

It worked again. “Blue! I know all guys say blue, shey? Except Ranti, he thinks he’s some sort of evil person, he’s just a bully who has watched too many movies; that’s why he goes for red or black. But I like blue.. Like that your big umbrella you keep beside your table. Yes, that shade.”

Jane struggled for a follow-up question; anything to keep the ball rolling away from its initial direction. At least, till something happened. Anything! Maybe a parent would wake up; or she would wake up! It could be a dream.

“Miss Jane?”

No. Definitely not a dream. Why her? Why did she get saddled with this? She wondered what evil thing she must have done in her life to get this reward.

“Why you? I dunno… Maybe because you’ve been nice to me before even though you don’t remember me. Or maybe cos you’re my class teacher.” He laughed again and she had visions of little children with red evil eyes and tiny horns sticking out of her shiny smooth foreheads.

“Please, don’t jump.” Her voice broke. Her voice sounded like what came out of her kettle before it started whistling; the whispery broken sound that brought on the shrill screaming.

“You probably don’t remember… We were coming in from lunch and you were reading something and you looked up and asked me what we had and if I had enjoyed it. You asked me to clean the board. You smiled at me. I probably sound pathetic but it was a lot. I felt needed.”

She didn’t remember. He sounded older than he could be. Old. Aged.

“My dad works so hard to get us away from where we are; my mother’s too sick to care.” His voice faltered for the first time. “I get depressed. I am depressed. Having one less mouth to feed would make more of a difference than you know. If I don’t jump, this cycle continues. I drown deeper in this despair. You’ve been depressed, haven’t you? Miss Jane?”

Jane nodded silently, the headlamps of a passing car glinting on the tears that had made crooked paths down her cheeks. She thought of her aging parents who she hadn’t called in six months. Her siblings around the world, she wasn’t sure where. She thought of the job she had gone for out of desperation.

Ugochukwu Amadi. She remembered the name from her roster. Nothing else. Just the name with the blue ticks and red crosses to mark attendance.

“It’s terrible, Miss Jane. And I’m tired of being here. I just feel so tired. Like there’s a hole in my heart. Like I’ve played football for a straight week without pausing. It’s like I’m.. weary. I’m just tired. And there’s no emotion after death for me to regret this. It’s almost altruistic. Kill my pain; ease my family’s pain.”

Jane let out a harsh sob. “Don’t jump. Let’s talk about it tomorrow. In school.”

But there was no reply.

It took two days for the news to reach the school. She had left the two boxes devoid of ticks or crosses, hoping she had somehow gotten through to him.

The headmaster announced that they had ‘lost a student’; no hows or whens; just before reminding the students that buying his textbook was now compulsory.

Jane made her students spend two extra hours after school that day; they all stood and told her their names and a summary about their families.

But the chair beside the fourth window remained empty.

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Cecelia.

“Won’t you have some small chops? The spring rolls are really nice oh.”

She murmurs a no and waves the waiter away. Her eyes remain lowered, as they are wont to when she is in company. When the waiter, clad in the ridiculous Ankara waistcoat finally moves on, she lifts her eyes from the mixture of vodka and coke clasped in both her hands.

Her hooded eyes rove over the room; from the laid-out booze to her colleagues looking to be laid. The office party doesn’t look like it will end soon. She peers at her watch and starts to head towards the exit. She doesn’t want to miss him tonight.

She is ambushed halfway there.

“Cecilia…” Ronke draws out her name like she is the serpent to her Eve. “You can’t possibly be leaving now! You’re always hiding somewhere.”

Amanda and Tomiwa peer at her from behind Ronke’s full head of borrowed curls. “What’s the rush, ey? Abi, you have a boo waiting at home?”

The three women who insist on replaying their roles in High School fall into laughter that they hide behind brightly colored nails. Amanda throws her head back to reveal an elaborate choker gently hugging her throat. Cecilia fights the urge to squeeze it tighter.

‘Slimy bitches,” she thinks. But her tongue has always failed her. She says: “E..ex..excuse me,” instead.

“Ahn ahn. We’re just playing na. Don’t get angry.” Tomiwa says and places two fingers around Cecilia’s wrist, steering her around as she would a leprous person in a burst of charitable feelings.

They guide her towards Biyi and Michael and she says nothing. She is resigned to the role she has to play in the lives of these people who need only look at her to feel better about themselves. Cecelia stares at her buckled shoes as they glide muffled over the red rug. There are times she wants to fade into the background like this carpet;  permanently.

It is one thing to be socially awkward. Another to be ugly. And a disaster to be a combination of both. Cecelia has always hated her square jaw that fit on faces of Marvel’s superheroes but her bad luck extends to the acne and pronounced knocked knees. There are benefits to being attractive in this world and Cecelia is aware of each one; relegated as she is to observe them bestowed on others from the sidelines.

Except when they turn to her for entertainment. 

“Ah, Cecilia is still here?” Biyi asks loudly. He laughs. His head falls back and she watches his Adam’s apple bob, as if begging for pressure of her thumbs.

“Have.. Ttto go.” She mutters, her eyes back to staring at her untouched drink.

“Why? Someone’s waiting for you?” Michael pitches and the others applaud his trite joke with their laughter. They laugh and laugh and Cecelia thinks they sound like maniacal hyenas in a forest, rejoicing over a kill.

She raises her hand to stare at her watch. She finds it shaky.

“I have tttto go.” She repeats. There’s no time. She has no time. She needs to get to him.

“Gee.. No need to…”

But Cecelia has dropped her glass on Amanda’s suede shoes. And now, she is running out of the hall. She hears Amanda curse. She hears the new guy ask “Who’s that?” And someone reply: “Good question.”

She gets to her car at 10:45; the neon digits tell her after her fingers have tremulously poked her key into its slot. She won’t be home in time, she knows.

This agitates her. She needs the mood to be perfect. She wants to be in her bed, lying naked when his voice reaches her: the lights dimmed because she doesn’t want to acknowledge what she spies in a mirror.

She won’t make it.

She turns the radio on then climbs out of the driver’s seat and lies in the backseat.

“Hello Abuja. You’re still hanging out with Ugo on The Vibes, 89.1 FM.”

His voice races through the air but slows as the vibrato and cadence of his words dance into her earlobes. She raises herself to lean against the door while raising her left foot to rest flat on the chair.

“Still talking about love right here, because, face it, we all claim to be experts at this game.” He laughs at his own joke.

He laughs and Cecelia gasps, her heading tilting back to hit the window. Her hands have found their way beneath her black pleated skirt and underneath her panties.

Ugo continues to speak about his limited knowledge of love but Cecelia has stopped listening to his words; she is instead listening for the promises in his voice; the consistency in its timbre; the companionship in the emission from her car speakers.

And as she strokes herself and Ugo closes the show, Cecilia cries a little. A little in shame, a little in pleasure and a little in shame of her pleasure.

“Thanks for listening, guys.. I do this for you. Same time tomorrow, yeah? It’s Ugo signing out. Goodnight!”

Cecelia blinks her tears away; because in this big fat cruel world, you have to go find some comfort where you can.