Sapphire’s curiosity grew more with her first sight of the principal standing in the bare floor hallway outside the classroom door. She was very young to be a leader of anything, and she wore less-than-modest clothing. Her brows slanted over a pair of dark eyes. She opened her mouth in a silent laugh, showing small, straight white teeth. She whispered something behind her hand and a man appeared. He had grey hair, pale eyes, and a thin, sharp cornered face. He looked old enough to be the lady’s father! When he leaned close, Sapphire thought he meant to kiss the principal right there in the hallway. He said something in a low voice and disappeared. The principal looked annoyed but lifting up her head, she entered the room with an air of arrogance. “Good morning students.”
Everyone shot to their feet and greeted as they had been instructed to do.
“Morning ma.” Ma Chidi gave a graceful smile. Each girl responded as their name was mentioned.
The principal clasped her hands deliberately at her wrist and began to talk about the fine reputation of the school and the glowing reports she and her husband had received from satisfied employers. “We select only the best.” Sapphire wondered at that, having spent night with the others, most of whom had less schooling than she. We are the best? Indeed!!!
“Those who make it through the first three months will be suitable for one of our uniforms.” When the principal raised one hand, Ma Chidi made a slow turn, showing off the ankle length black skirt, white high-collared shirtwaister with long sleeves and cuffs, full-length white apron with SCH designed on the right pocket, and white lace-trimmed cap.” Only those who graduate receive the honour of wearing our uniform.”
As the principal went on talking, Sapphire studied the transparent linen dress with its tiny pin tucks, lace insertions, designed white flowers and leaves on it. She knew the hours and cost to make such a dress.
“Sapphire Efeng, stand!!”
Sapphire rose, wondering why the principal had singled her out from among the others.
“I expect you to pay attention when I speak.”
“Yes ma. And you will say that respectfully with a bow when next you rise. Always take a bow each time you finish a conversation with me too.
Sapphire felt a rush of heat flood her cheeks. Fifteen thousand naira to learn how to be treated like a slave! The fifteen thousand naira Papa would expect to be repaid whether she completed the course or not. Clenching her teeth, Sapphire bowed.
“Yes ma.” She bowed again.
Principal Sophia’s dark eyes surveyed her coolly. “Did you hear anything I said, or must I repeat it all?
Sapphire bowed again. ” Yes ma. I heard.” She began to tell her word for word until the principal lifted one of those delicate hands to stop the flow. The principal gave a slight nod for her to sit. Sapphire remained standing. The principal inclined her head lower this time. Sapphire stared back at her. The principal’s cheeks flushed “Why are you still standing, Sapphire Efeng?
Sapphire bowed more slowly this time.” I awaited your command, ma.” She heard the nervous shifting of bodies around her. With another nod, Sapphire took her seat.
When class ended, Principal Sophie told her to remain behind. “Sapphire Efeng. Is that correct? What does your father do?
” My father is a tailor and my mother too.”
“Ah! She smiled. ” That’s why you were staring…..” She looked at Sapphire’s shirtwaister and black skirt. “Did you make what you’re wearing?”
Wondering at the woman’s change in manner, Sapphire bowed just to be cautious. “Yes ma.”
The principal’s mouth curved with an odd, pleased smile.
“Wonderful. You can make the uniforms.”
“Most of your evenings will be free.”
“Her evenings might be free, but she wasn’t going to waste it on something not rewarding.” If you have the materials, we can discuss the pay.”
The principal’s dark eyes widened with surprise. “What would you demand?”
Sapphire made a swift mental calculation and said an elevated sum for the uniforms.
“That’s outrageous!” The principal named a lower price.
Sapphire raised it. “And if I am expected to provide the materials, i will require the funds for that in advance, and the rest paid before I hand over the uniforms.
“You’ve been cheated, haven’t you?”
“I haven’t, but my father and mother have.”
“Is that any reason not to trust me?”
“This is business, Ma.”
The principal’s eyes lit up with amusement. After several rounds, she agreed on a a price slightly above what Sapphire had decided was fair. When everything had been settled between them, the principal laughed. “Sapphire Efeng”, you’re not like any girl I’ve had before.” She shook her head, eyes sparkling.” I doubt you will be a proper maid.”
Sapphire wrote to precious and receiver a swift answer.
What do you mean you doubt the principal is a good person?
Letters flew back and forth with the speed of light.
The principal sounds itsekiri one day and isoko the next. I heard her speaking English in the parlor yesterday, though she shut up fast enough when she saw me in the doorway. She’s up to something perhaps? Ma Chidi says it is impolite to eavesdrop. I intend to take mama’s advice and learn all I can…..
Perhaps she is just very good at languages and have absorbed the proper intonation.
Did I forget to tell you she has parties every Friday and often have overnight guests on the weekend? She says everything is planned in order to train us. If that is true, then I can say I am the daughter of a wealthy man too. She thinks I’m dumb!. I have said nothing of my suspicions in my letters home, but I will tell you. This house is large enough to need eight full-time maids to keep it clean and neat! They have taught us how to wash windows, floors, clothes and chandeliers. Ma Chidi has taught us how to clean some equipments. We dust statuette, beat dust from curtains, clean rugs. We change beds. This place turns into a hotel from Friday night through Sunday afternoon. How can I not admire such audacity? The principal found a way to make us servant girls pay for the privilege of maintaining her mansion.
Are you writing all these in your journal?
I’m saving the journal for better things.
She had filled only one page, with recipes of the Baker’s best selling bakery goods.
Sapphire never worked on Sundays. She walked down the road and across the bridge, into the city to attend services at the church, the most famous church in the city. She loved to linger at the portal, studying the carved and painted figures. After church, Sapphire walked to mall, its arcades lined with shops bustling with customers. She bought chocolate and a pastry and sat in the Effurun Garden park, thinking of Mama and Jane. She went to see the living history museum in koko and the red mangrove swamps. She liked to buy a cup of chocolate drink and stand in the Effurun Garden park. By the end of two months, Sapphire knew everywhere in the city.
Mama and Jane sent one letter once a week. Nothing changed. Mama was making another dress for Mrs Arabor. Jane stitched the hem. Papa worked hard in the shop. Everyone was well.
We miss you, Sapphire, and we count the days until you come home…
Every Sunday, before going back to the school, Sapphire sat near Effurun Garden park and wrote to Mama and Jane. She told them what she was learning about housekeeping, leaving out her suspicions of the so-called principal. She described the city.
I love Warri. Standing in the city is like being inside a bee hive.
Precious suggested she stay.
Have you thought about living in Warri city? Think of living in a nice house! Whatever you decide on, you must write and tell me everything!
Near the end of her six-month course, Papa wrote.
I expect you to return home as soon as you receive your certificate. Ask the principal for a recommendation.
He enclosed enough money to transport her back to the village. Relish had an opening for a maid.