Mama awakened her before dawn the next morning. Papa gave Sapphire just enough money to transport herself to Warri. “I’ll send you enough to get you home when you graduate.” He handed her the letter of acceptance, proof of tuition payment, and the address of the school.”You better start now. The lorry leaves in two hours and you know it only comes down here once a month.”

“I thought you might go with me.”

“Why? You can make it on your own.” He went into the shop to start work early.

“Don’t look so worried.”

“I’ve never left our village, Mama.”

Mama gave her a teasing smile.” Its safe, darling.” Mama hugged her tightly and handed over the backpack where she had packed a spare skirt, two shirtwaists, undergarments, a hairbrush, and toiletries.

Sapphire tried not to show how nervous she felt going off on her own. She was thankful Jane hadn’t awakened, for if her sister had started crying, Sapphire would have given in to tears too. She kissed Mama’s cool cheek and thanked her.”Goodbye, Papa” she called out.

“You’d better hurry!”he shouted back.

Mama went out the door with her. She took her small purse from her pocket and gave it to Sapphire.” A few cash for paper, envelopes and postage stamps.” She cupped Sapphire’s face and kissed her twice, then whispered in her ear.” And buy yourself some sweets and chocolates. Then find beautiful places and tell me about them in your letters.” She kept an arm around Sapphire and walked with her a little ways.” When you get up each morning, you will know I’m praying then, too.” If God listened to anyone in the family, surely he listened to Mama because she believes in him so much.”In whatever you do, Sapphire, do it as unto the lord.

“I will, Mama.”

Mama let her go. When Sapphire looked back, she saw tears in her mother’s eyes. She looked so frail.”Don’t forget us.”

“Never.” Sapphire wanted to run back and hold on to her.

“Go on now.” Mama waved.

Afraid she might lose her courage, Sapphire turned away quickly and started off down the street at a brisk walk.

The farther she went, the more her excitement grew. She ran part of the way and caught up with the lorry which took her to the small park where she got a bus to Warri. She arrived at the park just as the park opened. Her heart leaped when the buses arrived. She watched to see what other passengers did, then handed her ticket to the conductor before climbing aboard. She made her way down the narrow aisle, passing a man in a readymade business suit shuffling through papers from his case. Another sat two rows behind him, reading a book. A woman told her three children to stop fussing at one another.

Sapphire took a seat near the back. She put her backpack between her feet and looked out the window. She jumped in fright when the bus jolted. She caught hold of the seat in front of her and hung on, fighting down panic. How fast would this bus move? Would it tumble? Could she reach the door and get off before the bus left the park? The thought of what Papa would say and do if she showed up at the front door stopped her. She looked at the other passengers and saw that no one else seemed alarmed at the jolting and creaking sound from the bus. She leaned back and watched the village pass outside her window.

As the bus picked up speed, her heart did too. Every minute took her farther away from Mama and precious and Jane. When tears came, silent and hot, she wiped them away.

She watched out the window as she rode though the road, seeing the river from the distance, broad boxed houses topped with roofs curving almost to the ground. The bus stopped at every town, and she leaned this way and that to see as much of the squares and markets as she could. She saw old covered bridges not yet replaced with stone.

The bus creaked as the bus sped towards Warri. When the outskirts of the city came into view, Sapphire picked up her backpack and held it on her lap. She could see River Warri which joined River Forcado and River Escravos through Jones Creek in the lower Niger Delta Region. The city has a modern seaport which serves as the cargo transit point between the
Niger River and the Atlantic Ocean for import and export. Buildings stood in rows on both sides. She looked at her bag and outside the window again, not sure which direction she would have to go to find the school. She would have to ask questions.

When the bus stopped inside the station. Sapphire followed others down. She felt as though she had stepped into beehives with its constant, churning movement of bodies and him of voices. Conductors called out to passengers. Someone bumped into her and excused himself quickly, hurrying to catch his bus. She spotted a tall man in black uniform and black cap. She headed toward him. When she showed her address, he pointed out the route she would have to take and told her how much time it would take to ride the short distance.”You should take the tricyle.”

Sapphire decided to walk. She wanted to see some of the city and who knew how many days would pass before she had free time to whatever she pleased. Was the school in session on Saturday? She didn’t know. Backpack over her shoulder, she hurried from the park and strolled along a street, looking up at the buildings with flags flying. She passed by plazas and wandered in the crisscross of arcades lined with cafes, jewelers, clothiers, pastry shops, and shops with window displays of chocolates, sweets and other junks.

As the sun slipped , Sapphire hurried towards the school. She walked further and found the street name on the letterhead. By the time she found the right address, she felt tired but exhilarated. No sign told her she’d come to the right place,and the house in front of her looked like a grand mansion rather than a school.

A woman in black dress, white apron, and cap answered the door. Sapphire gave her an awkward curtsy.”I’m Sapphire Efeng.” She held out her documents.

“Never curtsy to the staff,” the woman said as she took the last papers, glanced at them, and beckoned her in. “Welcome to Squeakyclean school of housekeeping.”

She closed the door behind Sapphire. “I’m Ma Chidi. You’re the last to arrive, Sapphire Efeng. You look tired. You didn’t walk, did you?

” From the park.” Sapphire gaped at the grand staircase and the walls with portraits in gilded frames, the finely woven rugs, the porcelain figurines. This is a housekeeping school?

“Most people take the tricycle.”

“I wanted to see the city.” Sapphire stared up the ceiling.” I wasn’t sure when I would have a free day to see the sights. ”

“You’ll have Sundays to yourself. Come. I’ll give you an orientation tour. The downstairs holds the hallway, living room, the principal’s office and the teacher’s offices. The kitchen is on the other side, next to the dining room. The second floor has several large bedrooms. The third floor has most of the guest rooms. You and the other girls will be in the fourth floor dormitory. The classroom is there also.”

Ma Chidi walked head high, hands clasped in front of her. She extended her hand as she identified each room and allowed Sapphire a few seconds to glance around at the rich interiors. “The principal receives guest in this office. She had the walls repainted royal yellow after inviting her friend last year.” She lifted lifted her hand before clasping both in front of her again. ” That’s the principal’s portrait over there. She’s lovely. Isn’t she?

A young woman with dark eyes and long, flowing hair over bare shoulders seemed to stare down at her. The principal wore a beautiful emerald necklace around her slender throat, and her dress looked like something from the books Mama showed her.

” Let’s hope she’s nice.”

It seemed a surprising thing to say, and especially with such a dry tone. Ma Chidi moved on. Sapphire followed, growing more curious. “Does the principal conduct the classes?”

“She will speak with you on occasion, but i do the teaching with few other staffs.”

“Hope they ain’t mean?”

“It’s not polite to ask, Sapphire.”

Sapphire blushed. “Oh.” And why not? She wanted to say, but Ma Chidi moved on down a hall. Sapphire felt like a duckling racing after its waddling mother. “How many other students are in attendance, Ma Chidi?

” Seven.”

“Only seven?”, Sapphire gasped!

Ma Chidi paused and turned. She looked down her nose at Sapphire and whispered something under her breath.” Only the most promising are accepted. ” She looked Sapphire over. “Your dress is unique. Your designer made it, is it not?

Ma Chidi leaned closer and looked at the dress.” Beautiful work.” She smiled at Sapphire. “I’m surprised your parents sent you here. Come along. Ma Chidi turned away again. “I want to show the rest of the house. If you’re hungry, there is rice and banga soup in the kitchen. The principal is out for the evening. You’ll meet her tomorrow morning at ten in the upstairs classroom. However, I expect you there by eight for instructions.”

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