Ursula’s light was usually on before anyone else’s at home. She woke early and bathed earlier than her parents, her two younger brothers, the neighbors. The glow of her windows held out as two white blots on a dark screen. Through the thick ambiance of dawn it remained that way, hours before anyone else woke up.
She stared at her naked self in front of the mirror; the dark tone of her skin, the kinkiness of her infertile hair, at the folds at her sides, the sunkenness of her eyes, the bulge of her stomach. Her gaze shifted focus in a descent of distaste, from what she thought worse off to that which was somewhat manageable. Gently, she rubbed the pomade on both hands and over herself, from her neck to her belly, her eyes all the while transfixed on the mirror.
Her room had the heavily scented smell of soaped skin after a lathering bath. It was small, clustered. The chair of a study desk stood miles apart from its table, beside her bed instead, stacked with a dozen magazines. A thousand clothes lay scattered on the bed, more poked out a pink wardrobe shoved into a corner of the room. From behind her door she heard the quick snaps of doors being unlocked, and lights turned on. She made out the rushed footsteps of her father, loud underneath his weight; hurrying into the single bathroom they all shared. He was late, as usual, so she would be late, as usual.
She waved him goodbye and slowly made her way towards the assembly grounds with her backpack. They had not spoken a single word the whole way through. He had cussed at the radio for its politics and she had stared out the window disinterestedly, lost in a vision of alters and long, white, flowing gowns. She dropped her bag and water-bottle at the special place reserved for late comers, a usual for her, and joined her friends in line. She was short but she stayed behind, it was a silent concession they had all made. The dragging and pulling every time she showed up had tired them.
The second break bell chimed and everybody in Mr. Ansongs class 6 class rushed out. Everyone except Ursulla. She sat calmly at her desk, concentratedly scrawling at a sheet of paper with a pencil. She would scribble then erase, scribble and erase, occasionally blowing hot air from her cheeks to get rid of the residue.
She jerked upright, startled.
“What are you doing there? Wont you go for break?”
She shook her head. Mr Ansong stared, thinking of what next to say. She stared back a few seconds, tentatively returning to her scribbling.
They were alone in the squared space of the quiet classroom; so quiet they could hear the squeaks of each other’s pen and pencil. Mr. Ansong continued grading the class assignments.
Minutes passed, the books in front of him piled up, blocking what little vision of Ursula he had whenever he lifted his head.
He paused his pen mid-air, leaving only his ears to pay her any attention.
“Do you think I’m pretty?”
He dropped the pen and continued marking.
“Yes Ursula, you’re very beautiful”
Mr. Ansong was a tall man by any measure; tall and unattractive. His 36 years looked a travailed 50 on his light wrinkled skin and the protruding green of his veins. He had searching eyes, hollow cheeks, a slump to his back when he walked, a permanent nauseating smell of cigarette smoke. His list of unattractive features was seemingly endless. So that it came as a surprise, even to him, when he was finally able to lean back in his teachers chair and read the content of Ursula’s note, the absurdity of it all.
It was a love letter, complete with penciled hearts and italicized poetry. Professing an affection unlike any other ever felt before by a lady towards a man. She described him as caring, romantic, called him handsome. He had not been called that since he was 5.
She had waited behind after the closing bell for all her classmates to leave, even those from the other classes who wandered around the corridor, clapping a folded sheet against her palms rhythmically. Waited a long time, her head turned towards the window, humming and playing with the piece of paper, and he had ignored her; choosing not to get involved in whatever was the matter. He had enough problems of his own.
He was on the last Composition Essay when she finally got up, lifting her backpack and water bottle with her. She moved towards him with an almost imposing purpose. He looked up, and she handed the sheet to him.
“Read it when I leave Sir.”
For some reason, the thought to do anything other than oblige did not cross his mind.
He stared at the sheet a long time, the sored bumps underneath his chin pounding under the weight of his pen.
He looked up at the front door. Madam Mariama stood arms akimbo, her old handbag strung over her shoulder.
“You are not ready to go? The bus will leave”
He nodded, folding the sheet neatly into his shirt pocket.
He took one last look at the dark classroom before he locked the door, his eyes staying on Ursula’s desk a few seconds longer than the others.
“Mariama you know Ursula right? My assigned class?”
“Yes, the fat girl”
“How old do you think she is?”
“I don’t know, are they not all 13 or something? Why?”
“Oh nothing. Just wondering.”
The evening sounds of closing market enclosed the air around them. The bus stop was empty, it was past rush hour. The angry drivers of blaring cars were all home now, having their evening meals, bracing self to do it all over again tomorrow. Mariama texted on her phone, he leaned against a rail, smoking a cigarette.
“Her biology looks much older though”
He drew the cigarette to his side and sighed a plume of smoke, watching it disintegrate into nothingness.
In the growing darkness, a street light beside the stop automatically came on, casting a malignant vision on his lanky frame. He cupped his hands over his eyes and stared directly at it, whispering his words back at himself,
“Her biology is much older.”
Art Credit: Archival reproduction of painting "R. Trigonacantha" by MicahOfstedahlArts