Sister Reneece stopped writing on the blackboard. She had just felt her phone vibrate on her pocket. Her hand remained suspended in the air, holding the white stick of chalk a few centimetres in front of the battered board.
She waited for the vibration to stop, and when it did, she resumed writing. She never picked calls inside the classroom. A few seconds later, the phone started vibrating again. She hesitated a second, then lowered her hand. She placed the open book she had on her hand on the black wooden table at the front. Between the open pages, she placed the stick of chalk. Then she turned and, without a word paced out of the classroom. Her hand went into her pocket, felt the phone, pressed the button that stopped the irritating vibration.
Outside the room, she stepped over the well-trimmed low hedge into the quadrangle. All around her, she was aware of the great silence that was in the school. Class time had always meant serious work here. The grass felt cool and soft beneath the rubber soles of her shoes. It was always soft because students were prohibited from stepping on it. But she hardly gave it any thought as she crossed to the centre of the lawn in giant strides.
In the middle of the rectangular field, she finally pulled out the phone. She brought it to her face for a moment and looked at the screen. Then she pressed the button that connected the call and brought the phone to her ear. She opened her mouth to speak. But the words she intended to utter, and they must have been a reprimand for the thoughtlessness of the caller, never came. Instead, her mouth stopped opening and remained partly open. Her eyes slowly widened, and then her idle hand slowly worked its way to her mouth. She felt the energy seeping from her knees, felt her feet becoming like jelly, and she thought she could buckle down onto the grass any second.
When the call terminated, she maintained the phone at her ear for several moments. Then the hand holding it limply came down to rest on her side. She remained standing there for a few more seconds, looking in one direction at nothing in particular. Two swallows cruised past overhead, and somewhere beyond the boundary fence, a dog barked. A sharp scratching sound came from one of the classes as a student adjusted his desk.
Sister Reneece brought the phone to her face once more, swiped and touched the screen. A few seconds later, she looked up. A sober look came on her face. Her hands automatically inserted the phone back into her pocket. She collected the hem of her grey dress and paced to the edge of the quadrangle, her headdress dancing behind her. There, she gingerly stepped over the edge and raced into the classroom. Hastily, she walked to the table and picked her book. The short stick of chalk spilled onto the floor and broke into two pieces which scattered in opposite directions. She hastily patted her book, ignoring the dropped chalk.
Then she walked to the middle of the front, realized that one of her hands was still holding the hem of her dress. She let the fabric drop and cover her worn shoes. She clutched the book tighter under her arm. She adjusted her glasses, then she cleared her voice. When she spoke, her voice was hasty, as if there was something she wanted to do but couldn’t in front of the students. “Please ring the bell, Jason. I need everyone at the assembly ground.”
At the back of the class, Jason looked up suddenly. A bad feeling crossed his mind. His chest momentarily clamped tight, the pit of his stomach churned. A knot formed in his intestines, producing a sharp pain. He placed the sweaty palm of a shaking hand on his thigh beneath his desk, moved it up and down. A cold sweat sprouted on his armpits, stung the roots of the short hairs which had started sprouting there two months earlier.
He opened his mouth to tell Sister Reneece something, but she was gone already, swiftly like a gazelle. Then he couldn’t remember what he wanted to say. He slumped into his chair. A finger automatically went to the side of his nose, stroked it. He breathed in deeply. Then he exhaled slowly through his mouth. He stood up. He realized that the feeling was gone, as suddenly as it had come. But it left a haunting sense of doom as he made his way to the bell-ringing switch. He was the school bell-ringer.
When the bell rang, its trilling sound resonating through the compound, the school suddenly became a hubbub of activity. The odd scratching sound of moving desks developed into a chorus of screeches of metal against wooden floors. Classes which had been holding quiet students now spilled them out chattering. They were all asking one another what the matter, still hadn’t realized that none of them knew. They moved neatly and efficiently to the parade ground in front of the administration block with its natural stone façade and shiny glass windows. The sky was clear, with a few clumps of puffy white clouds drifting lazily in the air against the blue canvas.
The students took their positions as they always did at the assembly ground, determined by their houses and their levels of study. They ranged from form one to form four, and the height transition from the young ones in the front to the older ones at the back provided an impressive stepped ladder of black human hair. Soon, they were quiet again. All eyes were now fixed on Sister Reneece, who had now climbed onto the black metal podium at the front. Behind her, the other teachers stood in a straight line along the wide glass doors of the administration block and watched her every movement. They were as orderly and silent as the pupils, perhaps also stupefied by what would warrant Sister Reneece’s interruption of lessons.
“Hello students,” Sister Reneece began speaking. Her voice was a touch softer than it usually was. Sister Reneece was a well-known disciplinarian, aside from being the principal of the school, and she had a voice to match. Just the sound of her speaking behind a door was enough to send students looking for the wrongly placed item and place it rightly, sit up in a more upright position, or stop something wrong they were doing. But now she spoke in a subdued tone, and everyone immediately knew that something serious had happened.
“Today I have summoned you to this special assembly to give you very sad news.” She paused again, and her eyes performed a routine sweep of the faces turned to her. She shifted her weight, but no one saw because the dress concealed the movement. She was nervous, and she knew it. She was glad she was wearing her dress, because no one except her was going to know her secret. A teacher’s phone rang behind her. He swiftly terminated the call without receiving it.
“The president is dead.”
If what had been there before was silence, no word can describe what immediately followed her pronouncement. Breath stopped coming in and going out, chests stopped heaving, students stopped shifting their weight on their feet. The ones who had been whispering stopped, the first time they did it out of anything but the fear of Sister Reneece. The silence descended on the entire assembly like a thick fog which smothered everything. Even the pine trees which lined the edges of the assembly ground seemed to stop whistling in the breeze,
Then, just as it had come, it broke into a thousand pieces as tied tongues finally broke their leashes and breath found its way in and out. The chatter was suddenly there again. Questions were asked, rapidly-coined answered thrown back. Near the back of the slot for Tom Mboya House, in the second row for form three students, Jason stood silently, detached from the chatter and talk going on around him. The feeling of premonition he had had earlier had now come back, and with an intensity he could hardly withstand. And so, as everybody was busy speculating around him, he remained silent, detached from it all, trying to fight demons he did not know.
He was very relieved when Sister Reneece raised her hand in the air, calmed down the talk. Silence came back, and Jason’s premonition became stronger. The world became hazy, and only Sister Reneece’s face remained in focus. He stared at her, willing the words to come out, ready to pounce on each of them and make sense of this feeling he had. He felt like the silence was strangling him, and only the sound of her talking would take away the tight noose around his neck.
“His plane exploded and crashed when it was taking off a few minutes ago,” Sister Reneece said. Her voice was now stronger, as if she had already come to terms with the matter. But her words meant something else for Jason. It was all he had been expecting. He now knew why he had had the feeling. He now knew why he had felt like this went deeper than most people saw it. He felt his body slumping with the knowledge. In his pocked, his phone started vibrating.
“Scouts, please come forward,” Sister Reneece was saying. Her voice was now fluctuating between strong and soft, stern and subdued. “I want you to march in his honour, and in the honour of all the others who died alongside him, while you come and lower the flag to half-mast.”
The scouts in the school normally wore their uniforms instead of school uniforms on Mondays and Fridays. Now, in their brown apparel with green insignia, they promptly stepped forward from their positions in the neat ranks of students, who were now silent, each ruminating over the implication of the principal’s words. The scouts all moved to the end of the parade ground. They formed neat lines. Then their leader shouted out the orders. They started marching, making their way to the flag post at one corner of the ground.
They turned corners gracefully, their feet tapping the ground in rhythmic beats, crunching the gravel near the post. They came to a halt in front of the post, and their leader stepped away from them. Together with another scout they moved and stood beside the post. Then the ones left behind stepped aside.
Along the newly created way, a short student stepped marched to the front of the post. He saluted, and the others followed suit, not lowering their hands while undid the knots and pulled the flag. When the fabric was midway down the post, he refastened the string onto the hook. He stepped back, raised his hand in a salute. His hand came down in tandem with the others. Then he stepped back and went to his position. The others closed the aisle, and the leader and his companion stepped away from the post, back to their positions.
They led the school in singing the national anthem. The melodies floated into the air with the black birds circling overhead. They went on circling, oblivious to the situation below. Or maybe they saw it but didn’t make much of it, just continued circling around, searching for their sustenance. At a certain point during the singing, Jason felt the back of his throat tickling, and he had to stop singing. He didn’t resume when he had cleared it, just stared blankly at the flag waving in a tiny breeze, felt the words of the anthem swishing around him.
When the scouts had stepped back to their positions in the assembly, Sister Reneece cleared her voice, straightened herself. She smoothed the side of her dress, adjusted her glasses with a finger. The sun caught in the ring on the finger, twinkled into the eyes of the students. She took a step back from the railing in front of the podium, just a little bit.
“Today, you’ll have the day off,” she said it, gagging on several words, as if she wasn’t sure she wanted to say it at all. “Business cannot go on as usual at times like these. You will resume classes tomorrow morning. For now, you are dismissed.”
She stepped off the podium, and disappeared into the administration block, her dress swishing around her, trailed by the other teachers. The students started dispersing, talking loudly once more. The shock of the news, combined with the great news that there were no longer classes for the entire day, provided fodder for the conversations which sprung up all over. They walked in groups, aimlessly until they could decide where they wanted to go.
Jason pretended to be normal, but he knew that his movements were quirky, his looks suspicious. As he walked away from the assembly ground, just one among the many students, he knew that his life had now changed forever. He talked to no one, heard only a murmur of the conversations raging on around him. He felt light headed, felt himself lifted above the assembly ground, looking down at the mass of students mingling, aloof from it all.