I hated the month of May for two things. Morning assembly was a ritual to be endured. Throughout the rosary month, we spent an extra twenty minutes repeating prayers to God through his Virgin Mother ad nauseam, and reciting litanies to the Sacred Heart of the God which made me this way.
Rosary is compulsory. The punishment for skipping is all five morning periods spent cleaning the cells -- what we called the school toilets. Despite the work of seven repeat offenders throughout the first week, the toilets got no cleaner, and no one knew why.
I hated using them because one of my friends was among those condemned to be janitors for the month. And for religious reasons. Akwasi is a Jehovah's Witness whose parents foolishly left him to survive on our hilltop institution. He said the rosary was not of Jehovah and not in the Bible. He held similarly misguided beliefs about the National Pledge. He insisted, to the utter disgust of Sister Emily, that he'd rather scrub than go to Hell one day.
We learned the little headmistress recoiled at his blasphemy. Sister Emily would have let down her poise to slap the truth of God into his little head had not our previous headmaster been sacked for assault -- of a different kind -- on a student. The scandal was enough to expand the list of regulations preventing teaching and administrative staff from manhandling students in any sort of way.
Punishments became more creative after my aunt assumed her position. When she was just an English teacher, she earned the student's adulation because she was youthful, strikingly beautiful even in a habit, and generally minded her own business. The position must have unleashed the devil in her modest heart.
Akwasi was put in charge of cleaning the girls' toilets immediately. He had carried out his duties so far without complaint – like the Godly persecuted. Without complaint. The rascal whispered news of his appointment to me at lunch last week, pained at the tribulation he suffered for his faith. His eyes betrayed him.
Akwasi's saintliness irritated me, but this month I felt pity above my wariness -- pity so strong I chose to piss in the bush behind the school canteen rather than grant him more opportunities.
The month of May also reminded me of Akua Mansa. We met at orientation when she sat on my glasses and left me impaired for a week before my parents were allowed to visit and bring me a replacement.
She was so sorry for ruining my first day in school, she sat with me for lunch and -- I think she enjoyed this more than I did -- held my hand and guided me through the corridors to class and everywhere pretending I were blind. She also moved her desk next to mine so I could copy from her notebook.
I loved Akua's touch. That first day she held my cheeks in the cup of her hands and looked me in the eyes. She leaned in to apologize for ruining my spectacles. Her breath was a mix of lemon tea and crackers and cheese. I could almost taste the breakfast if I stuck my tongue out. That would have been awkward, but Akua wouldn't mind. She loved me for that.
Her palms were never warm. I shuddered at the initial chill. She was quick to notice. She pulled back and laughed at me, shielding her mouth with the back of her palm to hide her diastema.
She put on her most serious face long enough to assure me, "You'll get used to me touching you eh?" Her eyes bore into mine, then she broke the silence with another fit of laughter, which I joined, relaxed.
Taking on the responsibility of leading the half-blind girl meant she had little choice but to stick with me for a week. We were in the same class so, quite naturally, there was a lot of conversation material. Kenneth was a minister's son. Foreign Affairs or something of the sort. I couldn't keep up with government reshuffles. I don't like politics. Joojo liked me, but his JSS ex was in the next class. He was still shy of her, so he never approached me.
"Maybe he's looking at you." I posited. Akua was not the prettiest girl you've seen. Her short hair revealed the odd square of her head. She had thick lips, her eyes were an honest pair, wide and curious, her brow an angry bush. When she smiled though, a river of joy overflowed its banks and swept you. I always wore a stern frown that said "don't bother me today". I didn't see how Joojo could fancy that.
But Akua was quick to brush it off. "No," she said with enough conviction to catch my attention. "I'm not interested in boys." She sounded dismissive even as she looked the other way.
"Hmm. Me too." I confessed. Jake came to mind. The bastard had ditched me on my birthday. That day I lost a boyfriend and a bestie.
"Really?" There was an uncertain quiver in her voice with a hint of shaky curiosity.
We sat alone at the back of St. Martin's student's chapel. Lunch was over nearly thirty minutes ago and, according to school regulations, everyone was supposed to be asleep in their dorms. First years were excused for it was orientation week; we were allowed to be clumsy and blundering until we learned all the rules. Akua chose to be clumsy with me all week. She'd broken my glasses so she was my eyes until I got the replacement.
"Akua, I've suffered." I exaggerated. We all do when it comes to our problems. I hate sharing problems with friends because they always reminded you that they've had it worse before. Sometimes reaching out becomes a contest to see who’s been more miserable. But sometimes I did that too.
I started telling her about Jake but she wasn't interested. She turned away and thought about something. She was grinding her teeth, looking into the arboretum, starring as the trees waved back. I prattled on.
Somewhere in the middle of my story (I was working up to the climax where I found Jake masturbating Angie in Brian's bathroom) she cut me short.
"How many guys have you had?"
"One" I told her. I don't count Kobby and Brian's Lebanese cousin.
"Only one?" She didn't need me to repeat that. "I've had six." She spoke with an air of having been there, having done that, which put me off. She took my hand and started playing with my fingers. I let her touch me. Sometimes she does that when she's nervous. I don't mind Akua being fidgety around me.
But I thought about it. Six guys. Six guys as in, boys you've gone on a date with, or boys you allowed to kiss you or boys who slipped you notes...?
Instead I asked "So what, are you angry with boys? Who broke your heart?"
She could not hide the fervour in her eyes, despite her assumed nonchalance. I did not expect her to shrug and tell me she’d never been comfortable with them. I did not expect her to admit she was fed up with the norm, that she’d braved a shady path to discover what worked for her. I did not expect her to ask me if I'd been with a girl before. We were alone at the back of the chapel. Only the trees were there to wave at us.
Sister Martha's senile voice pulled me from memory and announced the Fifth Glorious Mystery. Most of us sat hunched in the pews, fingering our rosaries, fighting sleep. Ten more Hail Marys and then the Hail Holy Queen and then the Litanies and then we'll share the grace.
I hated the month of May because exactly a year ago Akua Mansa's step-father came for her things from the boarding house. She hadn't the decency to say goodbye. It's been an uncomfortable year.
Sis. Emily must have hated me from then. She'd never really been the loving aunt I'd hoped will let me cheat the system at her bungalow. But after the Akua Mansa affair, I felt the judgment of the Lord burn in her eyes anytime we met.
She didn't punish me. There were no provisions for this. She couldn't bring herself to make any. Despite her iron reign on top of the hill, she was still the quiet English teacher inside: she hated the spotlight as much as I did. Rather than call needless attention to some juvenile issue, she let the chasm between us grow, let me wallow in my sin and denied me any more sacraments.
She's a woman of faith, I'll give her that.