As soon as she saw him off to the gate, she turned and started back into the house.
Her steps were hurried, her heart pumping fast.
Inside, she sped up the stairs and pushed the door to her father’s room open.
But Prof was not in the room.
She headed to the adjacent door on her left and pushed it open.
Her father, now wearing his glasses, sat at his table at the corner of the quiet room, his eyes fixed on a large book on the table before him.
Professor’s Ilonna’s study was a special room. Any of the maids that has ever served in the house would tell you that that was the most important room in the house.
It was cleaned just once a week and on each occasion he supervised the cleaning himself.
He told whoever that was doing the cleaning what and what not to touch.
Once, a book was open on his table and Loretta, the maid before Ese, closed it as she dusted the top of the table.
That was the reason she was sacked.
‘She is constantly disrespecting the entire publications,’ Prof had claimed.
Professor Ilonna is a very methodical man. He is not troublesome, on the whole, but he doesn’t joke with his rules.
And his books.
Adaeze and Nnanna were allowed into the study on Thursdays and Saturdays. Their table was at the other end, facing the tall and gigantic open cupboard that was crammed with books.
Nothing unlike in a library, the books were arranged on the shelves according to title, purpose, edition or author.
A three-drawer file cabinet stood at the extreme edge and unlike the bookshelf was locked.
Prof has the key.
Little wonder now why a servant would spend an entire day cleaning just one room.
Because he was always usually there while the cleaning is going on, the maid is expected to do things quietly.
Very quietly and carefully.
Ese once dropped a book and her eyes opened so wide in fear that they were nearly popping out.
But Prof only gave her a look and said, ‘Pick it up.’
She reached to the book on the floor with shaking hands.
‘Dad?’ Adaeze called. ‘Dad, what was that for?’
Her voice was high, far beyond the acceptable level when inside the almighty study.
Once, when they were younger, Prof had gone out from the study to take a phone call and on returning, found Adaeze and Nnanna loud and laughing as they played a conversation game called ‘I Went To Market’.
He’d scolded them both but slapped only Nnanna on the head.
‘Dad?’ Adaeze called her father again.
Finally Professor Ilonna raised his eyes from his book. He took off his glasses, dropped them on the open book and turned his face to Adaeze.
‘You must cease all communication with that boy,’ he said.
‘Why?’ Adaeze returned to him sharply.
‘I do not like him.’
Adaeze drew in a long hot breath and puffed. ‘You feel he is not your class, is that it? He doesn’t have a rich father or parents whose name everyone know.’
Prof pushed back his chair and stood. He turned to his daughter. ‘You know me, child,’ he said, ‘social hierarchy means nothing in my assessment of others. Absolutely.’
‘So what then do you have against him?’
‘He is not to be seen with you.’
‘I don’t understand. If you claim you are not rejecting him based on his social status, on what basis then do you ascribe this your statement?!’
Prof sighed, made a sound with his tongue and stepped closer to his daughter. ‘Deze, as long as you are happy I will support whatever union, whoever you deem to take in as mate, just anyone, even a beggar on the street, I think I have enough money to feed your entire progeny, in whatever number they come, but you must—must, my dear—cease seeing that boy.’
‘Well, I won’t.’
Prof half smiled. ‘Deze, you are one stubborn child of your father. You are beyond intelligent, opinionated and voluble, which is all more refreshing than anything else to me. Haven’t I always been the one to give up, to concede, my dear? Remember them all: school, choice of courses, holiday locales, you’ve always been the one to choose. But now you have to oblige me this for once.’
He nodded, slightly. ‘Yes, child, you have to.’ Another nod. ‘You have to. Leave that boy and whatever that has to do with him. Go into the world, explore like you’ve always wanted to. Love comes just as easily as it goes if you throw open your mind, you once told me. You are a quintessence of acumen, my dear, you will make better acquaintances. You will meet someone else.’
‘There is something you are not telling me, dad.’
‘I’ve said all there is to say. Leave Ekene, step away from anything that has to do with the Ozoemena’s. Forget he ever happened. You can do it.’
Without another word, Adaeze turned and left the study.
Prof heaved a deep sigh, licked his lips again and walked back to his table.
He got into his room a different person. So many thoughts skipped about in his mind.
He blamed himself for having gone. Having succumbed to her control.
Then he started replaying all that went on in the house in his mind, searching to see if there was anything, just something he’d done wrong.
He got nothing and his confusion ascended another notch, causing his head to ache the more.
He started unbuttoning his shirt, roughly jerking the fabric as though angry with it.
He left his clothes on the carpet and walked into the bathroom.
But the cold water did nothing to alleviate his trouble.
The next day, he was getting ready for school when he heard his phone ringing.
He picked it up from the bed and saw that it was her.
For long he contemplated whether to take the call or not.
Before he could decide, the phone has stopped ringing.
He was dropping it back when the sound came on again.
‘Are you home?’ she asked him.
‘Can I see you?’
‘Not now, leaving for school in a short while.’
‘Alright, when then?’
‘You can come in the evening.’
At school, he stayed quiet all through. Anita on the other hand came to school that day as playful as a kitten. She continued pestering his life out.
When he said ‘Anita, please stop’ to her about the third time, the fair-skinned girl dropped down beside him and asked, in quiet voice, ‘What is wrong with you?’
‘Nothing,’ he said.
Before Anita could say something else, he’d stood and picked his books and left the classroom.
That evening when she came, he said to her, ‘I told you I wasn’t going to fit in.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Adaeze asked.
‘Your dad, he will never accept me.’
She stared at him.
‘I’m too low for him.’
She shook her head. ‘That’s not it, Ekene.’
‘Daddy is not the one to mind such things. There is something else.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘There is something else and it is beyond social status. Way beyond it.’
He said nothing immediately.
‘You need to see your mum, Ekene,’ she told him.
‘You need to ask her some questions.’
His lips parted, his eyes fixed on her.
The next day, he went home from school.
But he didn’t ask his mother anything till it was night.
He’d just finished his food and returned the plate to the kitchen, then walked back into the sitting room where Mrs Margaret sat hunched over the table, marking the notes her students at the college had submitted a day earlier.
Now as he took the other seat across from her, he began to wonder, yet again, why his mother suddenly resigned from her more-paying Federal job at the hospital to become a secondary school teacher in a private college.
The same school his sisters attended.
Half the pay, no retirement benefits and yet more the insults.
‘Mama?’ he called.
‘Y-e-s?’ his mother drawled out, making no attempt to look up from her work. Her eyes were framed by large, round transparent glasses.
‘Mama?’ he called her again.
‘Ekenedilichukwu, I heard you.’
‘Mama, what do you know about Professor Ilonna’s family?’
Now his mother looked up. She said nothing for a long time.
‘Mama?’ he called her again.
‘Why are you asking?’ she asked.
‘I am friends with his daughter and she invited me to their home.’
He was about continuing when Margaret stood at once and started arranging the exercise books on the table.
She ignored him.
Margaret carried the pile of books. ‘Ekenedilichukwu,’ she called him, ‘make friends only with people that are within your level.’
She walked inside.
When he called her and told her the outcome of his seeing his mum, Adaeze nodded and said, ‘I think it’s time I saw mine too.’
His lips came open and remained so for long.